Sunday, October 16, 2011

05.26.11 To Be Just - or Show Mercy?

Now that I am responsible for the outreach component of Tapestry Resource Center, I am immersing myself in biblical and academic study on the issues surrounding healthy and effective humanitarian ministry.

It's no small task.

I began my research with the concern that I'm not made for this kind of job. Words like sympathetic, generous, empathic, merciful, or compassionate are rarely associated with me. I once spent a year volunteering at an amazing crisis relief organization in downtown Minneapolis, and it was quite possibly the most joyless and least effective work I've ever done in my life. 

But God clearly put me in this position, and though I don't yet come close to grasping his vision for it, I have learned something kind of wonderful. As I have meditated on the ways of God, and in particular, his heart for the poor and the vulnerable, I have realized that the attributes of justice and mercy are not as disconnected as we often interpret them to be.

First of all, I believe that all humans innately desire the world to be both just and merciful, even though the existence of one can belie the effectiveness of the other. For example, when we are wronged - when someone has committed an act that violates our sense of privilege - we instinctively want a sort of retribution, or punishment, to be inflicted on the offender. We want the guilty party to both acknowledge and 'pay for' his wrong, whether it was our partner's harsh words or a criminal's misdeed. Yet, when we are the culprit, when we ignore the speed limit or drop the ball at work, we quickly hope (often beg) to be let off the hook. We count on receiving mercy from the one who has power to punish us.

The fact is, none of us could operate in a 100% justice- or mercy-oriented world. We would always find exceptions that we felt demanded a different outcome. The problem is, as selfish and self-interested people, we can't accurately judge when, how, and to whom to show mercy or administer justice, so we tend to fall more in line with one side or the other. And both sides find biblical support for their method of choice.

I have always thought of myself as a justice-oriented person. I'm not swayed by emotional pleas, I believe in personal responsibility, and I generally distrust people's motives. In effect, I judge people.

But I am also the person who will talk to anyone, especially the smelly, neglected, outcast in the corner. I am the person who gets a visceral, emotional reaction when I stand in a shopping mall because I think of all the people who went hungry that day. I can't stand to think of someone being ignored, alone, or oppressed.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is showing me that the justice of God demands acts of mercyOr, you could say, the mercy of God executes his justice. I am beginning to understand that while I am, indeed, designed to operate more on the side of justice, I respond to injustice with with mercy. And that both the motivation and the action find its source in Christ.

Because God's justice - his rightful authority to punish sin - led him to deal mercifully with me, his image-bearing creation. And his mercy - in forgiving my rebellion - was fully realized on the cross where Jesus took MY just punishment. Rather than contradict one another, justice and mercy are the twin pillars of God's righteousness, for neither can stand alone in his work of redemption.

As the prophet declared, God has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

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