Holy Tension – Justice & Mercy

Humans have a very difficult time reconciling Justice and Mercy. We tend to want mercy for ourselves when we have wronged others and justice for ourselves when we have been wronged by others. We possess a strong sense of both–two truths seemingly opposed to one another. Why? This is an essay I continue to update as I explore this tension.

Obviously, my strength lies not in illustrating, but I find visuals helpful.

I left white conservative evangelism over two years ago (3 months pre-covid) to take a longer-than-anticipated journey in the wilderness.

In my former corner of Christianity, sermons often pitted truth and love against each other using, what I believe to be, a misinterpretation of Eph 4:15. The question was always, “Do you err too much in truth or too much in love?”

I believe this to be a false dichotomy. Full truth and perfect love are never at odds with one another. The truth leads to love and love leads to truth. I tend to view full truth and perfect love as synonymous. (More on this later.)

However, I do see many tensions in Christianity difficult to resolve this side of heaven:

Justice and Mercy, Individual and Communal, Fate and Choice, Unity and Diversity, Different and Equal, License and Law, etc.

Today I want to focus on the tension between Justice and Mercy. Humans have a very difficult time reconciling the two. We tend to want mercy for ourselves when we have wronged others and justice for ourselves when we have been wronged by others. In court, after a person has been found guilty of a crime committed against another person, the defendant and their family almost always plead for a light sentence. Can we blame them? However, is a light sentence the just response to the person who has been wronged? Humans possess a strong sense of Justice and Mercy—two truths seemingly opposed to one another. Why?

One of the primary intellectual reasons I have remained a Christian is because of the tension between the two. The Christian concept of the cross is the only story I’ve heard that explains both our longing for justice and our longing for mercy and the reconciliation of the two. God’s Full Truth and Perfect Love at the cross unites both.

We meet Jesus in the book of Mark preaching: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15) This kingdom has often been referred to as the upside-down kingdom where the “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16). At the cross, Jesus turned the rules of this world upside down when he desired to take the justice others deserved upon himself and extended mercy to those who didn’t deserve it.

I believe the difficulty of holding the tension of seemingly opposed truths, such as justice and mercy, create many of the dividing forces between different sects of Christianity. One of the things I’ve learned in the wilderness as I’ve begun to visit many different churches, interact on social media, and read books outside my white evangelical upbringing, is that God owns a BIG umbrella.

I wish I could more easily convey a 3D image, because belief systems are complex and a linear spectrum oversimplifies.

Danger arises when you cling too tightly to one facet of truth, and completely lose hold of its complement. Extremes move away from the truth and love found at the cross. In the case of Justice and Mercy, the extremes that I’ve observed (at least within white American traditions of Christianity) tend to believe (either in theory or practice) “God is only mercy” or “God is only just.” The pain of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements reveals that no justice is an unloving response to those who have been wronged. The self-righteousness of a religious zealot reveals a person who must justify all their actions as righteous because with no mercy they face the damnation of hell. The need for the cross is absent in the extremes, but the two concepts held in tension lead us to the cross where we discover God is Fully Mercy and Fully Just.

Humans struggle to do both justice and mercy well. Thankfully, the cross brings Grace. I believe God gives us the dignity of choice, so I do believe you can willfully reject the gift of the cross, but I also don’t believe that I’m called to judge where people are on their spiritual journey. I’m confident that I was under God’s grace as a Christian immersed in white evangelical culture believing many harmful doctrines, and therefore, I’m no longer worried if I swing too far “left” because I expect God’s grace to be there for me just as it was when I was too far “right.” I humbly accept this side of heaven that I see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12).

I hold on to the truth of God’s love for the world manifested in Jesus Christ and him crucified. I am on a journey towards Love and Truth, on a journey of learning to love God and love my neighbor as God loves me. Learning to pursue justice and show mercy. Following Jesus to the cross. The more I choose to follow Jesus, the more I’ll evidence Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. Speaking truth in love means speaking no more and no less truth than is loving in a particular conversation. For example, the conversations I have about sex with my youngest child and my oldest child are very different in the specifics, but I speak truth to both. It would be wrong to give certain information to my youngest before they are ready, and it would be wrong to deny certain information to my oldest when they are ready. Sometimes speaking the truth in love means not saying anything at all – it would be wrong to share the specifics of sex with someone else’s child without their guardian’s permission.

When appropriate (in love), I should speak the truth as I understand it, but again, I’m so thankful for grace, because I frequently fumble both the truth and the love.

I am on a journey! Your thoughts are welcome here. As long as the tone stays respectful, feel free to leave your comments.

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