Everyone wants justice. And everyone dislikes injustice. Even a child understands those fundamentals. But most of us struggle to articulate exactly what justice is. Even great thinkers struggle…
- Plato, The Republic
“Rectificatory through retribution…”
- Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
“Blind, social fairness…”
-John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Justice is not "you get what you deserve". Justice like that is a human convention. And because humans are broken to the core, what we mean is "you get what I think you deserve". Human justice is not just at all. Human justice is revenge.
It turns out that nobody wants really justice – at least for themselves. What we want is justice "for" others. We want others to get what's coming to them – and rarely do we mean a pat on the back. We mean retaliation.
What do we want for ourselves? We want mercy. We want a reprieve of justice. We want to NOT get what we deserve. We don't truly believe we are innocent. And we don't truly believe we don't deserve retributive justice. We just want a break – warranted or not.
Because it seems impossible, we typically don't desire grace. We don't deserve to get something we don't deserve – although mercy itself is a kind of grace. Grace, selfless grace, isn't on the menu. From a human perspective, it's ridiculous.
Consider you are a student in school. Someone pushes your books out of your hands. Justice is swift; you turn around and punch the offender square in the face. He gets what is coming to him. That's human justice. That's revenge.
What if you turned and forgave the offender? That's mercy. But what if you turned and, out of selflessness, you offered to carry his books. Is that justice? It is so different from the human sense of justice it's almost injustice. That's grace.
Justice is easy for humans, and mercy is harder. Grace is nearly impossible. Because of that we see the pattern: first justice, then mercy, and rarely grace.
Nothing is difficult to an all powerful being. Nothing is difficult to God. So, the (justice -> mercy -> grace) pattern isn't necessary. He can start where he wants. He can start wherever is best. And selfless grace, the most beautiful of the three, the most divine of the three is God's starting point. God starts with grace.
Where (justice -> mercy -> grace) is the human pattern, (grace -> mercy -> justice) is God's. And as mercy is a kind of grace, so we ultimately see selfless grace as a fulfillment of perfect justice. God's justice is grace. He doesn't need to differentiate, because his end game for either is identical.
So, we need only consider the ENDS of justice's MEANS. And what are the means of justice? The means are punishment. Justice begets punishment. But why would God punish us at all? Why not just forgive through grace? He does forgive through grace. But his goal is not JUST for us to be forgiven.
Consider, for a moment, yourself as a young adult. Your mother is in the kitchen preparing your favorite meal. You walk right up to your mother and with all your might you punch her in the face. She staggers to the floor, and you retreat to your room. There is a silence in the house and a dagger in your heart. No one honors the son who hits his mother. Universally, you have a violation counting against you.
Now imagine something big happens in your life. You need counsel. You need a shoulder. You need a friend. Do you feel like you can go to your mom? No. You just punched her, and your violation of her trust in you has damaged the relationship between you. You cannot go to her.
Now imagine your mom approaches you shortly after you hit her. She is stern. She is serious. And she explains the punishment you are to receive. What you really want to ask her is to hit you back, but you know she would never do it. She loves you too much to hurt you. Instead, you can't do this for two weeks. You can do that for a month. And on and on come the punishments. You nod, accepting the punishments she gives and then you genuinely apologize. Your heart is recovering.
Now imagine something big happens in your life. You need counsel. You need a shoulder. You need a friend. Do you feel like you can go to your mom? Of course you can. She is your mom. And because your punishment was not to make you suffer; it was for reconciliation. Because you have paid the price for what you did, your relationship is restored. She did not hurt you back or make you pay, she brought you back.
Why did your mom punish you? It was because she wanted to restore the relationship. Why does God punish you? It's because without proper payment for sin, the relationship is damaged, the fellowship is damaged, and the friendship is damaged. God's justice is not revenge. God's justice is reconciliation.
Consider how, prior to knowing God, your life was full of sin – fundamental to the core of your being. Punishment for your sin you always scorned, and apology for your sin you never gave. So deep was your violation that the dept you owed was too great for you to pay. How could your relationship be restored? The punishment was too severe. You could not survive it. You could never pay it. But it must be paid.
So God agreed, through Grace, to wipe the slate clean. He would pay the price. It's your father who pays for the replacement stained glass window after your stray little league foul. Not because you don't owe the debt. It's because you could never pay it. And, it's because it must be paid. When you have no currency, he makes good on your debt.
She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt; what once was friction
What left a mark; no longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
- U2, Grace
You may still be punished, but you are punished only on the scale you are able to actually pay. The punishment does not fit the crime. In fact, the payment is paid in full no matter what. Your personal part of the punishment is balanced by your father's willingness and ability to share your burden.
Unfortunately, we often misunderstand the value of punishment as a means to reconcile our relationships. Consider how The Shack characterizes God’s punishment:
“I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring people from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it”
- God’s character to Mack in “The Shack“
The author may have been making a great point. I grant him that. I enjoyed the book. But this short snippet can be a teaching moment. We see the human desire to erase punishment; we fear it. It’s not fun. We won’t enjoy it; nobody is punished for their pleasure. But we can anticipate the purpose.
In the end, God applies justice how he wants. And, what God wants is reconciliation. He pays the debt you can't pay and prepares a new punishment suited for you – temporal, limited, and bearable. It's a punishment for reconciliation. And, he requires an apology – a repentance.
This brings up an interesting aside. In my house, with three daughters, we have rules. Rule three is that apologies never include the word "sorry", and always include the word "forgive". It takes little reflection to see this truth. What God desires from us is a true apology. Not an "I'm sorry". That's just lame.
Regardless if we want justice; God does – by way of grace.