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073  When God Decides to be Just

One of CS Lewis' lesser-known novels, entitled "Till We Have Faces," retells the Greek myth of Psyche in his revealing fashion. Near the end, the main character, a queen, lays entranced on her deathbed having her soul healed by the gods, who, in this novel, are righteous like the real God. A teacher from her youth comes to her in her dream and says to her, "You have accused the gods, and now it is their turn. Know that whatever happens, you will not get justice." Aghast, she asks this teacher, "Are the gods not just?" "Heavens, no, child," he replies, "What would become of us if they were?"

We can all count on hearing, in Christian circles, that God is just. The problem is, it's not true; it's not even close, and that's a good thing. Most of the time, God's mercy dramatically overshadows His justice, so that He can treat us far better than we deserve.

We're used to hearing that message from the New Testament, how God sent Jesus to take a punishment that we deserved, so that we would not have to. But that was the picture of God in the Old Testament as well:

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
  He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
  He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
  For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
  as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
  As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
  For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:8-14

God has always been this way with those who trusted Him. He does not pay us back for our sins; but He rewards our good acts at a thousand times their worth. He treats us gently, because He doesn't forget that we're puny and easily discouraged.

What changed in the New Testament is not that an angry God suddenly got soft; what changed (among other things) was that the favor that formerly was available to the few who knew Him suddenly became available to the many who did not. Jesus paid the entrance fee into the Kingdom of God for us all, and now even unholy people like ourselves can get in. God doesn't just allow the decent ones in; He invites us while we're still horribly wicked. He even agrees to change us and make us holy if we'll let Him. That's grace. Say "thank you."

During the periods reported by the Old Testament, God often demonstrated His favor by sparing thousands of people for the sake of a handful of righteous people. He showed this in Genesis 18, when Abraham bargained with YHWH for the city of Sodom, and YHWH agreed that He would spare the whole city if He could find just 10 righteous people among them. (It turned out that He couldn't find 10, so He removed Lot and his family before destroying the rest.) He showed it again when Moses interceded for the Israelites in Numbers 14. On the word of a single righteous man, Moses, God spared the lives of tens of thousands of Israelites who were afraid to enter the Promised Land. He continued to feed them in the wilderness until all those who had rebelled had died of old age; then He called on their children to enter the land, led by Joshua and Caleb who had not rebelled.

That's God most of the time. Most of the time, He's not just; He's gracious. But that's most of the time, not all the time. 

The prophecy of Ezekiel shows us a time when God, after 800 years of grace and patience with the nation of Israel, had to stop being gracious for a moment and simply administer justice. He had chosen Israel to represent His character to the Gentile nations, with the goal of bringing those nations back under His care eventually. But Israel chose to be like the nations it was supposed to reach, and that ruined the message. After many centuries of working to bring the Israelites back into obedience, He finally reached the point where He had to treat their sins as they deserved to be treated; He announced, "Now I have to be just."

So when Ezekiel spoke to Israel, he explained that God's usual tolerance and patience were no longer going to apply. Formerly, God had been inclined to spare the whole nation because of the pleas of a few righteous people; but Ezekiel told them to expect a different pattern:

"And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it...even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God...they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate."

Ezekiel 14:12-14,16b

He goes on like this for a while. The point of it is, God could no longer justify sparing the wicked along with the righteous. The times called for strict justice. So even if righteous Noah had been there among them praying for them to be spared, God would not spare them all, nor even spare Noah's children; He would only spare Noah. 

He repeated the message in Ezekiel 18, in this manner: "Behold, all souls are mine...the soul who sins shall die." Ezekiel 18:4  Most of the time we hear preachers using this verse to illustrate God's justice, and it does do that; but they often don't realize that this was an exceptional circumstance. God is not usually just in that manner, he's usually a great deal more patient. But in Ezekiel's time, He announced that He had to be just: the ax would fall on all who were guilty.

When God says "It's time for justice," you don't want to be there.

First off, of course, there's the question of how righteous you and I have been. There's the frightening possibility that we haven't measured up and will be swept away with the rest. Any person who doesn't fear this possibility is a fool. (II Peter 3:8-13 discusses this; the key phrase is "What sort of people ought you to be?")

But secondly and more relevantly, when God decides to be just, things will not be pleasant even for the righteous who are spared. Consider Ezekiel. He was announcing God's plan to bring justice on Israel. Where was he when he announced that? His family had already been taken captive! He was living in Chaldea on the River Chevar. His life had been spared, but he was a refugee living in a foreign land.

Or consider Lot. God spared Lot and his family when He destroyed Sodom, but Lot lost everything. His house was gone. His animals were gone. All his friends and neighbors were gone. All the familiar places he used to hang out were gone. And soon, his wife was gone. His situation was so bleak that his daughters actually thought that the end of the world had come and that they had to reproduce with their father (see Genesis 19:31-32). That's what "being spared" looked like for Lot.

From time to time we hear preachers reacting to some catastrophe as though God were judging the United States. I tend to dismiss them, not because God doesn't judge (He does) nor because the US does not deserve it (we do) but because if it were really God judging America, that preacher probably wouldn't have a live mic to say it into. When God judged Judah, the entire nation was made a desolation. When God judges America, He may spare many righteous people, but I'll bet that the power to that preacher's mic will be out. I'll wager that Starbucks won't be open to give you your morning latte; it will be closed. When it's God doing the judging, nobody will wonder if it's judgment; it will be clear.

(Those preachers might be more accurate if they said that the calamity was God warning America. That seems possible to me.)

I'm saying these sobering things because we may be approaching a "Day of the Lord" during which God will bring justice on America. I don't have to rehearse the laundry list of our sins, because we all know what they are. Where have we ever gone in the United States where the government was not corrupt? Where the affluent didn't enjoy their affluence but ignore the needs of the poor? Where abortion was not legal? Where Internet porn was not plentiful, and accessed by many? Where the Church did not fall far short of her calling? After 50 million abortions, if God does not judge America, He may have to resurrect Sodom and apologize to them.

If that happens--if God decides that it's time to be just--put your trust in YHWH, who knows how to preserve His godly ones, but don't expect a soft ride. Focus on rebuilding in righteousness, and extend God's mercy to the survivors. Always remember that God's anger is for a moment, but His favor lasts for eternity. When you see God's justice, call on Him to remember His mercy. Because most of the time, God is not just, and that's a good thing. He remembers that we're just dust.


Phil Weingart

After that frightening bit that I just wrote, I could forgive you for not wanting to read more of my stuff. But most of these RfMemos are a lot more encouraging, and they're available at if you'd like to read more biblically accurate instruction.

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