31 December 2010

Mercy, Not Justice

Recently, I went to pray with the family of a deceased elderly patient. I'd met one of the children a few days previously when I went into the room to introduce myself to the patient and this particular (middle aged) child. The patient was polite but firm, no that patient didn't need a Chaplain. So, here I am a few days later with all the children praying with them upon the - not unexpected - death of a parent.

"Tell me about your parent" I asked. The children told me that the parent had been angry with God on account of the tragic death of another one of their siblings a number of years ago. Then one of them asked me a question that I've been asked once before in my short tenure as a Chaplain: could God accept their parent into heaven if that parent had been angry with God over the death of that child? And then one of them said "We want you to pray for mercy, not justice."

Justice? I passionately believe in God's justice. But I'm not so sure that God's justice has a lot to do with the "sending to hell" of a person whose heart is broken. And that's what I said: "I don't think that God condemns a person to hell for having a broken heart." Now, I have no idea if this particular individual was "going to heaven" but I'm certain in my own heart that they aren't going to be "sent" to hell against their will for not being able to get over their grief.

I also noticed that, when I said that, all the children started crying and they all thanked me afterward.

Here is one place where I think popular notions of salvation and what it means to be a Christian do Jesus and Scripture a disservice. Popular Christianity has turned "faith in Jesus" into some kind of an intellectual assent that has nothing to do with Justice. So, we name people as "just" who assent to certain ideas about Jesus. And they don't even have to actually try to change their lives according to Jesus' teachings; all they have to do is assent to certain ideas about him. And we name as "unjust" people who don't assent to certain ideas, even those whose heart is broken. And we are certain that such people are "unjust" even if they visit the sick and imprisoned and feed the hungry.

This accounting-version of what it means to be a Christian also does a disservice to the concept of "Justice". Any honest reading of Scripture on the subject of "justice" will demonstrate that the biblical concept of justice is not some kind of complicated, abstract, doctrinal mental Olympics. Scriptural justice is very similar to plain, straightforward, everyday justice: don't harm others. Don't steal, don't exploit, don't take advantage just because you can. And it's also more than that: God's people are called beyond the don'ts into the realm of the do's: Do help, do give a hand up, do empower.

Faced with an unjust person whose soul cries out to God: "I harmed, I killed, I stole, I was self-centered, and I'm proud of it. I don't want anything to do with repentance and I don't want anything to do with You. Eternity in Your presence would be hell" I believe that God will grant the person's wish to be outside of the Kingdom for all eternity.

I do not, however, believe in a God who sends a broken-hearted parent unwillingly to eternal torture on grounds of "justice".

If God's mercy is ultimately smaller than the best mercy that we humans can conceive of, then ours is indeed a very small god.


Tim Chesterton said...

This is a wonderful post, Pam. Thank you, and happy New Year.

J A Y B said...

I found your post very helpful and uplifting. God Bless you Pam and a Very Happy New Year to you and yours.

WomanistNTProf said...

Thank you Pam. We too often identify ourselves as Christians by what we don't believe over against somebody else. But it is more about what God has called us TO DO-- to do justice. I enjoyed reading is piece; resonated with me deeply.

PamBG said...

Thank you WNTP. The encounter resonated with me and I struggled to put it into words.

Mendip Nomad said...

Frederick William Faber wrote:

For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of man's mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own.

The words are verses 4 & 5 from "There's a wideness in God's mercy", which I did not know at all before I came to Methodism but which swiftly became one of my very favourite hymns.

(Right, off to do some Hebrew or some Doctrine homework, then some Biblical Studies! Oh, and it's not actually normal for me to quote hymns in my comments!)

PamBG said...

I'd not known that hymn before either. Good luck with the studies!