Throughout Scripture, justice is linked to God’s righteousness and considered foundational to both God’s character and His throne. If so, what is it that we should think about when we talk about the justice of God?
If you were to ask Job’s friends, or if you were to ask Job himself, you’d get different answers to that question. For the friends, the justice of God was related to a quid pro quo whereby God and mankind give each other what they get in response or in return. Job rejects that view of justice. His contention is that since he, Job, is good, and God is giving him evil in return, either God has a different form of justice or else is working with bad information, assessing Job to be evil when in fact Job is good. If only Job could get an audience with God, he could show God the error of His ways.
In essence, what he’s saying is that God doesn’t know what’s going on with His creation, what’s going on in His universe; that He’s working with bad data. God’s 77 thundering questions, which we referred to last week, are designed indirectly to dispute the notion that God is not intimately aware of what’s going on in the universe, and that He’s ignoring it. Job may feel like God doesn’t know what’s going on, and that He’s out on an island and all by Himself, but God emphatically rejects that notion.
So if God is aware of all the suffering, the poverty, the injustice in the world, why doesn’t He do something about it? Although God can presumably act on behalf of mankind He apparently does so only infrequently. Recall the book of Daniel, which describes Daniel and his three friends being thrown into the fiery furnace:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
This is the same viewpoint that Job has. God could deliver him from this pain. “I’m being treated unjustly. But though He slay me, yet will I trust him.” Perhaps the central question of Job is actually: “Who wants to serve a God who is unable or unwilling to save me from pain, poverty and injustice?” Is there such a thing as disinterested faith, or do we have faith in God only because God gives us something in return?
During my career, I’ve taken care of thousands of patients. It is rare indeed for patients to shrug off their illness as simply a random event: “Oh, stuff happens.” Most often it is seen in some kind of moral context. Either “What have I done to deserve this? I’ve been good all my life, and why is this happening to me? This is a real injustice!” Or: “This is what I get for how I’ve lived my life. I’ve always smoked, I’ve drunk too much I’ve not taken care of myself one way or another.”
Most people see the hand of God in pain and poverty and injustice. And the natural response is: “Why? Why me? Why now? And how long will this last?” Like Job, you can ask the questions; but don’t expect answers—at least not in a form which you would consider to be actionable.
God seems not to want our actions. He wants our surrender. Simple answers precipitate action on our part and place emphasis on our own work, rather than God’s grace. Questions leave us pondering, open, and surrendered. We seek answers. God responds with questions. We seek a moral meaning in life. But life is not about moral meanings that we can understand and respond to. Life as it is portrayed in the book of Job is to come into oneness with God. What Job gets from all of his questions, all of his truth, and all of his travail is a new view of God:
“I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:2-7)
Despite God’s inaction, Job comes to know that God is all-powerful and omnipotent. Despite what Job observes about his own condition, and the lack of answers to his questions, he sees that God knows everything. God is omniscient. What he had heard about God he now sees in God. God has overwhelmed his senses. God is everywhere. He is omnipresent.
This is the contrast about God in the book of Job. Job’s friends opined that they understand God, they know God’s ways and find meaning in his universe. This kindles God’s wrath against them, declaring that they have not spoken of Him what is right as Job had. So what did Job say? He said simply said that God is omnipotent, God is omniscient, and God is omnipresent. God, he says, is to be worshiped but not understood.
This dichotomy lies at the heart of the original sin. In the garden of Eden, God creates mankind with conditional blindness. He puts two trees in the garden: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. The serpent points out: “Don’t you know that if you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, your eyes will be opened, your conditional blindness will fall away and you will be like God?”
From the beginning, mankind sought the knowledge of God. This attempt to know God’s wisdom, to know the mind of God, is a characteristic of mankind. In good times, such as in the paradise of the garden, and in bad times, like Job sitting in dust and ashes with worms devouring his flesh, Mankind seeks to know the mind and the wisdom and the knowledge of God.
Job is naked. Adam and Eve are also naked, and both are under the threat of death trying to penetrate into the secrets of God. Moreover, the quest for knowledge of God results, for Adam and Eve and for Job, in profound physical distress and mental suffering. God wants us to trust Him rather than to know everything for ourselves. Eve has no trust; Job trusts implicitly, even being slain. Trust is to eat from the tree of life, the tree of our creation and the tree of our re-creation.
Answers to our questions put us into action, our own action, our own work, our own effort. Life in God’s universe is about His action, not our action, and that is why He only gives questions. He gives enlightenment, not answers. He gives trust and faith, not activity. The quest for knowledge of God results in nakedness, forced physical labor, and suffering.
However, seeking to know why there is injustice, why there is suffering, and why there is pain is not the same as turning our back on these things. One of the great ironies of Scripture is that while God gives us no reasons, no explanations, and no answers to the problem of injustice and suffering, the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats as pictured in the judgment scene (Matthew 25:31-46) is solely based on our response to injustice. The parable is about the care of the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the strangers, the sick, the imprisoned, those who have poverty and pain and have experienced injustice. This is the key element in the justice portrayed in this parable.
Note the surprise of everyone at the judgment. Both those who are on the right and those who are on the left are surprised at the judgment: “When did we do this? When did we not do this?” This is a another great mystery that is part of this dilemma: Why is something so devoid of explanation so pivotal in judgement? Wouldn’t it be smarter for God to explain the reasons and the whys and the wherefores of injustice, so that we could respond better in judgment? Isn’t it irresponsible of God to use something as poorly explained as poverty, sickness, and injustice as the means by which to judge us?
Beverley: Is it possible that God is not interested in our intellectual abilities regarding these experiences, like injustice and pain and suffering and poverty? That He’s not interested in our ability to intellectualize those concepts rather than how we respond to people as people?
David: I couldn’t agree more. It is not an intellectual issue at all. It’s a spiritual matter. And where is the spirit, the soul, the inner light? We can all sense some of Job’s enlightenment, but we are no further forward than he was in answering any of the 77 questions. It is strictly spiritual, but religion tends to try to make the spiritual into an intellectual exercise.
Robin: I think there’s a difference between God’s justice and [garbled] includes spiritual. But then He also set up the judges, the system of justice on earth, so I don’t think that we can cancel one side out, as human beings who are sinful victims also need justice. But then God’s justice also includes the spiritual and things that only He has the capability to judge.
Beverley: I’ve heard justice defined as the equal distribution of whatever is right. That may relate to the idea of a Creator who is supremely righteous and a creature that is not really righteous; but even in the context of mankind alone, there are laws, righteous or not. All that should be expected or required is that those laws be equally applied to all.
When some people benefit from these laws—whatever they are—while others do not, or they are unequally distributed, therein lies injustice. Man’s law may be unjust. so unless we settle on what is righteous, what is right, according to God’s standard, we can’t really define adequately what is right or righteous. But even within the context of our sinful human condition, we do have certain values and mores that we consider to be right. And it’s interesting: Some of them are considered to be right around the world, irrespective of of kindred, tongue, or people, yet we are even unable there to equally distribute justice.
Donald: God wants us to do something, not just talk about something. So every day I pray the Lord to give me the ability to do something. Just talking about things gives us a sense that we’re doing something, but it’s not necessarily the case.
Beverley: Our church joined other churches (Baptists and others) as a spiritual community to stage a protest. We had a program, with different pastors, different congregation members, people in the community, as speakers. So, there there is quite a bit of that going on.
Donald: Our little town had a protest walk about a month ago, and that certainly was not focused on any one faith group. But then, in contrast to that, there are some who objected that a protest gathering was taking place at all at a time when people can’t even get together on Sabbath for church. We intellectualize the situation.
David: Do we worry too much about action, to the extent that it becomes an intellectual exercise? Faith is a matter of surrender, which is more a passive than an active act. Just go into your closet, say your prayers, and surrender. Daily. You accept God just by virtue of doing that. Not only is that the ultimate expression of faith but it is also likely to lead to the kind of actions that Jesus would approve of. Should I not be out with with the demonstrators? Should I not be out at the soup kitchen feeding the poor? Those actions may or may not take place, but they are not part of your faith anyway. Your faith, your (passive) action, is in your surrender to God. If you’ve done that, you’ve done all that God wants.
Don: As I studied this week, I became more and more puzzled and intrigued by the dichotomy whereby Job gets no explanation for the cause of suffering yet it is precisely on this issue that the judgment takes place. Why would God do such a thing? What is the strategy? Why would He take something so mysterious, so inexplicable, and yet say “These are the criteria, this is the code of honor, under which I’m going to pass judgment on you.” It seems puzzling to me.
Clinton: God doesn’t need to be aware of the elements of the judgment. I mean, that something He is going to discover, because we have lived and done some things. So the notion that God is waiting for us to act out so He can decide anything about us is fallacious. God knows whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen. So he knows exactly where you’re going to end up. And so it is not about His understanding of your situation. The question, in my mind, is that God is trying to reveal something to us and wants us to learn something about ourselves as human beings and as individuals. So the judgment is not to be used as an indictment of God’s perhaps not knowing our will. It is about what we learn in the process. I think we are able to learn things from what we think or imagine God is going to do.
If we think we’re going to live forever, we might not care about the judgment. But we know we are going to die, so we say, “God, I think You’re in charge; and if You’re in charge, some things will happen to me that I have no control over. Maybe I need to put my life in a sort of congruence with Yours and live how You want me to live.” But I don’t think God is trying to navigate whether you will do something and therefore judge by it. The judgment is for us. I think, perhaps in a heretic sense, that the judgment has already begun and we are in it. We are constantly living between what we should do and what we do, and we make judgments about our behavior. That is perhaps more important than the final judgement.
Jay: What’s also troubling is that we seem to be the vessels of God’s justice, grace and mercy. We seem to be the conduit for passing those things along to others. Yet we tend to pervert or twist or do something with them that we shouldn’t. That takes me back to the idea of this just being about who and what you are. I don’t want to mean that in such a passive sense that it takes all responsibility off the individual and off of God. I think there is a growth process. I think you see it when you read the Bible stories of people getting closer to God. That process seems to be what’s happening in the story of the goats and the sheep, which presents a group of individuals who have been going through the process to the point where God’s grace and love flows through them. Yet it’s not a conscious cognitive choice.
Beverley: It is a process of “becoming” without even realizing it.
Carolyn: Is the Holy Spirit included? To me, He is so part of my life. I would like to know whether we are acknowledging God’s plan or following through on God’s plan. To me, I have to ask the Holy Spirit to show me. Doesn’t that become part of how we look on the whole idea of being justified? I think sometimes I don’t ask quickly enough for Him to come when I need Him because I’m in a state of bewilderment of what to do, of how to do these things that are important, in order to be different from the goats.
David: Which Holy Spirit? The God of the Old Testament is the God of law, the God of Moses, the God of the 10 Commandments, the strict God who would who be first to throw a stone at the adulteress? Is that the Holy Spirit we should turn to when we need guidance? Or do we turn to the God of lovingkindness, the one that Jesus told us about?
Beverley: There’s only one God.
David: Does the Holy Spirit have two sides?
Clinton: It is my belief that God has not really changed. And if God has not changed, then any changes that we embrace must be our imagination of who God is. I think that applies in the the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I think the God Christ came to clarify our misconceptions and our imaginations about who He is. And so I believe that the Holy Spirit that pervaded the Old Testament is the same Holy Spirit that pervades the New Testament.
The problem is that we seem to attribute to God our conception and our imagination and our presuppositions (and this applies also to the Jews in the Old Testament). When a child disobeys his parents and is supposed to be stoned to death, I don’t believe that is a portrayal of who God is, and therefore who the Holy Spirit is. I think it reflects the culture, the mores, of the time, which led people to believe that “Hey, in order for you to understand what it means to be respectful of your parents, you’re going to pay a big price.” But I don’t think that was God. That is my belief.
The Holy Spirit is consistent. God is consistent. Therefore, any perceived departure from His consistency is in our imagination and our preconceptions and conceptions. If that might lead us to indict some of the prophets who ended up in the Bible calling for destruction, so be it!
Donald: Does everything need to be explained? Do we need to be able to think this through and come up with a scientific reason as to why it is the way it is? That’s why I go to a hospital. I’m not going there for a wishy-washy answer about what’s happening to me. Tell me why I am ill, and fix it!
Don: Religions tend to be very happy to help you answer your questions. Any question you have, they have an answer; don’t worry. It’s like a doctor who doesn’t know what s/he is talking about, but s/he’ll give you an answer anyway. Can you sue a church for malpractice?
Beverley: You sign a nondisclosure agreement!
Robin: Sometimes, just as it was for Job, the answer is that this is too great for my mind; that now I see where before I thought I saw and I was demanding God’s answer. And now I see who God is, and who I am in relation to Him. And that may be the only answer that we get in certain situations. I mean, we would all love to have everything explained totally and completely. But even the answers that science provides change. So science is not perfect, but then, science is not God. God is the creator of science, but He is a spirit. Therefore we can only demand so much of Him and that’s why there is this thing called faith which is wholly spiritual and has nothing to do with science.
Jeff: It’s a misconception that science will answer every question. It goes against exactly what science is. Science constantly re-assesses old data as new data arrive and revises its theories based on new thought. Science is constantly at war with itself or looking for reasons to disprove what it thinks. But in the same way that we’re looking to the Bible or to God for answers in the positive or negative in a binary situation, we as humans look to science for the same thing, when that’s fundamentally not what science is.
Don: Jesus told the Pharisees that they were lacking in the weightier matters of the law. He put justice as the first one that they lack. Is that an actionable indictment, or a conceptual indictment?
Jay: I don’t know that your actions can change unless your understanding or perception of the issue changes. As human beings, an overwhelming desire to understand just drives us. There’s a lot of good in doing so; the thirst for answers has brought several good things. But without a conceptual understanding that something is off, askew, not in alignment, I don’t see human beings adjusting their behavior. Cognitive dissonance is needed for the human being to make adjustment. We sometimes use physical intervention and cognitive dissonance to change the perceptions of children, to make them understand that something is not in alignment and therefore make them realize they need to change their behavior.
I think the ministry of Christ is all about cognitive dissonance dissonance, in the sense of “Your mindset is perverted, your view of God is perverted.” There’s no doubt that the prophets who wrote the Old Testament books thought they had a pretty clear view of God and that the things that were happening were a quid pro quo from God. Then Jesus comes and starts to set some of those things, those understandings, in a different light.
The danger that I think we find ourselves in today is in thinking we are getting closer to the truth, closer to understanding God and what God wants. I think that the closer you think you’re getting to God the farther away you’re getting from Him. The closer you think you are to understanding why God does what He does, the farther you’re getting away from doing what God wants you to do.
In the judgment scene, this is why people are shocked to discover that they are sheep or goats. There is no surprise when you already know the answer. I think it’s important to understand that, especially when talking about justice, mercy and faith. If you think you’ve got the complete picture, you need a little humility, without which you might find yourself on the left and not on the right.
Robin: I wonder if that was a lesson for Job to learn, because he insisted he had done nothing to deserve “punishment.” God revealed to him his puny stature compared to God Himself.
Jay: No doubt he realized he was incapable of understanding the reason why things were happening. A light bulb lit up for him but it was not a quid pro quo from God. At the end of the book, after God talks about the greatness of everything that He does, Job admits he is simply incapable of understanding.
David: Job was a good man at the beginning and he was a good man at the end; he never changed. But Jacob was not a very good man at the beginning. His story is about self judgment. In Job it’s not so much about self-judgment as it is about self-understanding and about where you stand in relation to God.
Don: Next week we’ll move on to the subject of mercy and ask ourselves the question: What did Jesus mean when he indicted the Pharisees for not practicing mercy?
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai, edited by David.