Justice like Fire

(Malachi 2:17-3:5; 1 Peter 4:12-19)

Some years ago I got an interesting comment on a blog post from a guy with whom I’d exchanged the odd e-mail; he was a prosecutor down Dallas way, and he noted that he’d spent a while in the traffic division, prosecuting tickets and the like. He wrote of his experience there that “when defendants would say in court that they were there seeking justice, one of the judges before whom I would appear would ask them if they wanted justice or mercy. Amazingly, most of them got the answer wrong.”

Tell truth, though, it’s really not all that amazing—especially if you have kids. Taking justice and fairness as roughly equivalent for our purposes here, one of the things I’ve learned in raising mine is that kids have a clear and strong innate concept of fairness: “fair” means “I get whatever I think I deserve.” Some are more strongly that way than others, of course, and growing up usually broadens our perspective, but that’s about where we all start—and many people never develop the humility or self-awareness to move past that way of thinking. After all, none of us has ever been inside another person’s head, or spent any time looking through anyone’s eyes but our own; we each have our own little peephole into the rest of the universe, and it’s the only one we ever get. Learning to think beyond that one point of reference to try to understand where other people are coming from is really not all that easy, either intellectually or emotionally.

In fact, let’s go a step further here and recognize that even those of us who try to do that only ever succeed in part. Inevitably, we must always begin from our own position and our own perspective, and seek to broaden our understanding out from there; equally inevitably, in any disagreement, we always start off on our own side. This is why, I think, though “judgment” is often received as a bad word—we don’t want to be judged, and we don’t like people who are judgmental—“justice” for most people is a good word, because we think of the justice we deserve as a good thing, as justice being done on our behalf against those who have done us wrong. After all, most of us don’t really think of ourselves as bad people—sure, we’re not perfect, but we aren’t the ones doing injustice; it’s those people out there. If there were any justice, they would learn their lesson and everyone would see that we were right all along.

Except, says Malachi—not so fast. This is an interesting passage, because while the prophet certainly promises judgment against the really bad people in Israel, as we see in verse 5, he’s not primarily talking to them. Rather, the people he’s addressing first and foremost are the righteous in Israel, the good people, who are frustrated that God’s not doing his job—which is to say, that he isn’t responding to things the way they in their infinite wisdom are sure he ought to respond to them. They know who the bad people are—and have probably been spending a lot of time in prayer giving God this information in considerable detail—but God hasn’t blasted them yet. In fact, looking around, the wicked in Israel seem to be doing just fine; and as for the other nations, well, Israel was still under foreign rule, so God obviously hadn’t judged them yet either. Hence their complaints that the God of justice seemed to have taken a holiday—or, worse, had thrown in his lot with the evildoers and decided to reward them instead.

Now, these sorts of comments, whether meant seriously or intended to be unfair, have two real problems. The first is that some folks are going to hear them, take them seriously, and act accordingly; such comments incite people to do what they please without regard to the will of God. They encourage people not to take God seriously, which is a very bad thing. And more than that, to accuse God of being unjust or of failing to do what is right is to slander him, and he will not tolerate that.

His response is eloquent, and sharply ironic. “You want the God of justice?” he says. “Fine, but understand this: you won’t be as pleased about it as you think.” Those who complained about the absence of divine judgment failed to realize their own unrighteousness; they complained that God was showing mercy to others, not recognizing their own need for mercy, and thus not understanding that the patience of God was for them, too, not just for everyone else. They assumed that God’s judgment would only fall on their enemies, but God says no: it will start with you. As Peter says, judgment begins with the household of God.

Of course, the judgment of God serves a different purpose with those who follow him than with those who do not. Malachi says the Lord is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap, and you may remember we talked about this during Advent: it isn’t that God arbitrarily decides to destroy certain things, it’s that he cannot endure sin, and that which is sinful cannot endure in his presence. His justice and his holiness are a consuming fire that burns away everything that is impure and unjust; only that which is pleasing to God remains. For those who do not fear the Lord, there is nothing that can survive that fire; for those who reject salvation, there will in the end be nothing beyond judgment. For those who follow him and seek to be faithful to him, on the other hand, God’s judgment is painful, but ultimately a blessing; thus Peter says, “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” knowing that the fire of the trial is an instrument of God’s good and purifying purpose in our lives.

Even so, we do well to be humble when we consider the justice of God, and still more when we ask for justice; this is not a prayer we should ever offer lightly, or with any sense that we ourselves are somehow above judgment. We cannot rightly call anyone to repent of their sin if we are not ourselves repentant of our own; we must humble ourselves before others if we would have any right to ask them to humble themselves; and we should not ask God to judge others if we do not also ask him to judge us, to purify our hearts and refine our lives.

Now, if we cannot talk about justice without also talking about humility and our need for mercy, this may remind you (as it reminded Sara this week) of Micah 6:8, where the prophet declares: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?” Three things Micah names. One, to do justly, to treat others rightly in accordance with God’s will. Two, to love mercy; mercy here is hesed, the covenant love and faithfulness of God. Note the way this is put together. Micah doesn’t tell us to be lovers of justice; that’s an attitude which, all too often, makes people stern and merciless advocates of an increasingly narrow idea of justice. Rather, he tells us to put our hope and trust in the faithful love and grace of God, accepting God’s goodness not as our right but as his free gift; justice should be not what we demand from others but what we seek to do for others. And three, tying it all together, we are called to walk humbly with God—not asserting our independence, insisting on our own rights or demanding our own way, but accepting that we need his grace, and that we need to follow his way.

I didn’t think of this until later—which is too bad, it would have made a great sermon illustration—but behold the lover of justice in all his glory:

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