Of all the attributes of God, the one we find the most distasteful and even terrifying is his justice. The idea that God is a consuming fire and a fearsome judge is more than a bit unsettling. We are sinners, and thus prefer the thought of God’s infinite mercy.
But I would propose that God’s justice is one of the most misunderstood of his attributes, and I would argue further that if it were properly understood, we would not fear God’s justice, but rather find hope in it.
Is God Bound?
The misunderstanding of God’s justice comes from the idea that God is bound by a code that even he cannot escape. This abstract law dictates that even though God loves us, desires to show mercy to us, and wants to see us saved, he is bound and required to punish sin by some necessity called justice. God then becomes conflicted within himself—which desires should he satisfy? His desire for vengeance, or his desire for mercy?
The traditional protestant answer is that God satisfies his desire for wrath and vengeance on his own Son, Jesus, freeing him from the necessity of justice and allowing him to show mercy to sinners. This view is also embraced by some Catholics.
While there is a real sense in which Jesus did satisfy a deficit in our relationship to God and right order was restored, I believe this overly legal view of God’s justice is misguided. God is not bound by anything but his own nature. He is a just God and a merciful God at once. There is no conflict here, no inner war in God. God’s attributes are related and cannot contradict one another. Mercy and justice are not enemies.
So how then, are we to understand God’s justice, especially in relation to his mercy?
The traditional definition of justice is rendering to each his rightful due. Thus, in a human legal framework, if you commit a specific crime, you are “owed” a specific punishment. For example: John steals. The punishment for stealing is flogging. Therefore, John deserves flogging.
A hallmark of human justice is impartiality. “Justice is blind,” goes the saying, and the more impartial human justice is, the better. Much of this legal strictness is due to our limited understanding. We cannot see all the circumstances that led John to his crime. We don’t know if he were stealing for the thrill of it or stealing to feed his family. We simply see the crime and deem it worthy of punishment. We cannot play favorites.
But God is not bound by our human limitations. He sees all and knows all. And further, God is not impartial in the sense of a blind judge. He is not detached, but rather personally invested in each of us—because he created us and loves us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” St. Paul says. He knows we are not so much as criminals in need of punishment, but rather wounded and sick souls in need of healing. He can no more judge impartially any more than a father can judge his children impartially. Love is not blind, love is bound.
The Complexity of Sin
Moreover, our merciful Father knows that sin runs deep. Our sins are rarely a product of clear-headed, rational, and free choices like we think they are. Our Father in heaven sees every circumstance, every wound that leads us to sin and takes it into account. He knows that the choices and failures of others influence us nearly as much as the choices we make for ourselves. “He remembers that we are dust,” in the words of the psalmist.
And so when we are eager to dole out punishment, he is eager to heal. We see a criminal in need of punishment. He sees a sin-sick heart—a heart that he loves beyond all reckoning—that needs to be healed. This is the justice of God, rendering to us a superabundance of grace where sin abounds.
We are all subject to the human condition known as Original Sin. We are born into a world shattered into a thousand pieces, and we are affected by this reality from the first moment of our existence. Our choices are complex, bound up to a large degree with those of others, all of us connected in a web of infinite complexity.
God looks on this wounded world with compassion, not as a “blind” judge of strict and exacting justice, but as a Father looks on his wounded children–with a desire to heal and restore. His justice redounds to our benefit, not to our condemnation. And what does this justice look like? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
It is God’s delight to save. It is his desire to heal. He “take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but desires “that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11). It is our infernal enemy that desires to destroy and condemn, not God.
Rather than fear God’s justice, we should hope in it, knowing that he takes into account every circumstance of our lives, every wound of our hearts. We should hope in the fact that he is more eager to save than to see our death.
I will conclude with the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, a saint who found confidence not only in God’s mercy, but in his justice:
Though one must be exceeding pure before appearing in the sight of the All-Holy God, still I know that He is infinitely just, and this very Justice which terrifies so many souls is the source of all my confidence and joy. Justice is not only stern severity towards the guilty; it takes account of the good intention, and gives to virtue its reward. Indeed I hope as much from the Justice of God as from His Mercy. It is because He is just, that “He is compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy. For He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust. As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on us.
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