Social media over the past months has brought the world to our doorstep. Among family reunion photos and cheeky memes, we may also come across news and pictures depicting abject human suffering. These things move our hearts and stir within us a desire to right wrongs and fight injustice. If you have a heart of compassion, causes large and small can make the internet an emotionally wearying place and leave you wondering, “What can I do?”.
Something we could ask is, “If this is how we feel about injustice from our limited perspective, how does God feel?” After all, He sees everything and cares about each person deeply. As we stumble in the dark looking for human responses to human problems, maybe plugging into God’s perspective will help us as we grow into adulthood, engage with the world, and try to respond to injustice the right way.
What is Justice?
Before we can consider responses to injustice, we obviously have to first try and figure out what justice is. Doubtless, we all have a general definition in mind based on the way the word is used in our modern vocabulary and in the world around us. We also have a personal sense of justice and of right and wrong. Thirdly, because we have a connection to God, we can tap into His view of justice as informed by the Scriptures.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word justice comes to us from the Latin iustus and has several dimensions. Firstly, there is a religious and moral sense of the word justice, namely, righteousness and uprightness. There is also a legal definition, where “justice” has to do with equitability and lawfulness. Thirdly, in the general sense, “just” can mean “correct”, “true”, and “proper”. For example, accurate rather than deceitful measurements in business transactions are considered just (Leviticus 11:35; Proverbs 16:11).
Aside from the “dictionary definition”, justice is also a deeply personal and emotional experience for human beings as we all believe ourselves worthy of justice and fair treatment. Have you ever felt wounded because of unfair circumstances, angered when you were cheated, or hurt when people spread gossip about you? Injustice causes us pain and leaves us with wounds.
However, our human sense of justice isn’t the most accurate barometer of right and wrong.
For example, people who have poor self-esteem may not think themselves deserving of what we would consider just treatment. They may, if hurt, think that they somehow deserved it. It can be incredibly hard to convince them that they deserve respect and love. Conversely, narcissism causes people to think that they rightly deserve special treatment, privileges, and attention. Losing these can feel like “injustice”.
Beyond our human weaknesses, however, is the fact that we are made in the image of God. Within most of us is a desire not only for personal but for society-wide justice. We have, in different ways and in different measures, empathy for others and a desire for their good. This part of our nature is a little reflection of God and His heart.
This brings us, finally, to the ultimate standard of justice – God. God transcends our limited human ability and understanding in just about every aspect of consideration, including justice. Where we are weak and frail, He is strong. He is the ultimate, unchangeable, living standard and “model” of justice. We can cling to and trust Him in the midst of the swirling storms of doubt, confusion, or sorrow that easily cloud our judgment.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he (Deuteronomy 32:4).
Deuteronomy 32:4, upon closer inspection, doesn’t just say that God does “just things”. It says that all His ways are justice. There is, therefore, not a single work of God that can be classified as something other than justice. I think this gives us a good starting-point for learning what justice is – it is a part of His every action because it is a part of His being, and in order to learn about true justice we need to encounter and have a relationship with God.
It is interesting that both the primary Hebrew and Greek words translated as justice, tsedek and dikaios, are just as frequently translated as righteousness as well. It’s impossible to divorce the two words, as if God’s absolute right-ness means that He is unfalteringly just. God isn’t “just” in one action, “merciful” in another, and “righteous” in a third as if He has multiple distinct modes.
How do we even begin to meditate on His wondrous works? Searching the Scriptures is the best place to start. What I did and would recommend is using a concordance to read all about the word “justice” in the Bible. You could simply search for the words “justice” and “righteousness”, which are interlinked. Or you could use Strong’s Concordance to look up the Hebrew and Greek words that have been translated as justice/injustice. The different words in the original languages provide a more nuanced understanding.
God’s thoughts and ways are far beyond ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). We won’t get anywhere with studying Scripture if we don’t first start with the premise that God can and will challenge us and that we may have to “un-learn” cherished ideas and philosophies. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the Bible contains “the answer to all our questions” if only we seek persistently and are willing to wrestle with the radical, counter-intuitive answers God gives us, the God who “loves us and will not leave us alone with our questions”. Expecting God to surprise and challenge us allows us to begin discovering what the justice of a loving God and the love of a just God means.
Once we have sought out and developed a Christ-centered understanding of justice, we naturally will want to know how we can put our hands to the plow and get involved with righting wrongs in this world. We want to get out there and turn the world upside-down for good!
Why We Must Respond to Injustice
One response to injustice is indifference. A person might not actually say, “I don’t care”, but his or her way of living and perceiving the world can reinforce “blindness” and a lack of awareness about the suffering and difficulties of others. It’s easy to shut ourselves into a selfish existence and become concerned with petty, individual problems. Social media, for example, can be used to engage with the world at large and bless many people. Yet, we are often tempted to promote ourselves, seek validation and attention from others, or indulge in materialistic pursuits instead.
Focusing purely on our own needs and not looking beyond ourselves can cause us to become apathetic, eventually diminishing our natural, God-given empathy. If our sense of justice is strictly personal and based on whether we’re treated rightly or wrongly, then we may not feel anything or even notice if someone else is treated unjustly. This is often the reason why injustice happens and continues all around the world – people see and people look away. Ignorance is the easy path.
Indifference can cause us to eventually become callous and cruel as individuals and communities. In the story of the Exodus, for example, Pharaoh is described as hardening his heart to the plight of the enslaved children of Israel (Exodus 7:13-14; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:34). He ignored the pleas and appeals of Moses and chose to oppress the children of Israel further by increasing his demands. Similarly, James 5:1-6 describes oppressors as “living in luxury and self-indulgence” (James 5:5) while exploiting their laborers and denying them wages.
The Bible warns us sternly against indifference and inaction. These are warnings we should take to heart. We should try to develop a broader understanding of the world beyond our own lived experiences and try to engage with the contemporary issues and causes. After all, if I’ve never experienced poverty or discrimination, it would be hard to even imagine what it would be like. We need to have a humble heart to learn and listen from others who have these lived experiences. Even if we cannot solve the world’s problems or don’t know where to start “doing justice”, we can educate ourselves and courageously forsake cozy comfort-zones.
It actually takes deliberate effort and even supernatural grace to break out of a self-centered existence and to become “others-centered” the way Jesus was – after all, He came to earth purely for the sake of the Father’s glory and our redemption, not for Himself.
Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.
The Bible is clear that we must respond to suffering, especially because the greatest commandment of all is to love our neighbor (Mark 12:33). We cannot see others in need and close our hearts to them, for inaction is a response devoid of love (1 John 3:17) and devoid of faith (James 2:14-16). At the end of the day, Jesus expects us to treat the people around us the way we would treat Him, and in being merciful and compassionate, demonstrate His love (Matthew 25:31-46). It would be hypocritical to call ourselves Christians and not care about the things Jesus viewed as important – love for our brethren (1 John 4:20), justice, and mercy (Matthew 23:23).
“God helps those who help themselves” is not a concept related to biblical justice. God has made it clear in His Word that justice meant that people such as strangers, sojourners, the poor, widows, and others who would otherwise be left forgotten and deprived were deserving of special consideration and care. Beyond individual obedience, God desired a radically just, equitable, and compassionate society in which everyone His people encountered, even total strangers, were treated with love. The justice of the law demanded love, and thus love was embedded in justice.
In Christ’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes the clear, resounding call of justice. In our desire to love as Christ commands, let’s take up the baton of justice and let God’s view of justice inform our own. His ways are higher. His justice is greater.
Come back tomorrow to learn the right and wrong responses of justice.