How We Change Our Understanding of Justice

“Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.”
—Proverbs 28:5

Justice begins with demands—the declaration of rights and responsibilities codified by laws by which mankind governs the affairs of society. A system of privileges and consequences are established to ensure that these demands are met both by those who govern and by the governed, so that order and peace are maintained. In a perfectly just society, everyone receives what they are owed.

It is right for a society to be just. Obviously, it is an understatement to say that our society is utterly imperfect in dispensation of justice.

I would argue that America has spent her entire life in pursuit of understanding justice and freedom. The great American thinkers devoted themselves to studying history and philosophy to arrive at what they thought would be the most equitable and fair system of governance that would ensure justice and freedom for the people of America.

However, one of the major issues with this system of governance is that although it had ambitions to secure the rights of all people, black people were not considered people at all. This, of course, was no small oversight. And though laws have been changed over the course of history to try to fill this gaping hole, it is obviously still one of the greater weaknesses of our American society.

I make the claim that the way that America understands justice is not only now broken, but always has been. We, as a nation, have never truly understood justice.

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a path forward. Things are not hopeless. In fact, I believe there are three things we can change about how we think that will help us gain a right understanding of justice.

We must change how we see God

When I hear justice discussed in public discourse, I rarely hear any mention of God at all (other than to blame Him for the lack of it). We assume that we can be just and God-less at the same time.

The problem introduced by attempting to divorce God from justice is that there becomes no sufficient standard by which to judge what is just.

Justice cannot exist in a vacuum. There has to be a standard, and true justice requires a perfect standard (anything less would be unjust). As human beings, we are not perfect. Consequently, our every attempt to define justice apart from God falls flat.

America and its citizens evidently cannot agree on what is just. For all our revolutions, war, riots, marches, and uprisings, it always feels like justice is just around the corner and is, in reality, always out of reach.

We perceive its nearness and even taste it sometimes. We have enough of a God-endowed sense of justice that we can at least imagine what a just society should be. Most times, we settle for close enough.

We tell ourselves that we don’t need God and have gone out of our way to explain Him away. We build a society devoid of God where things evolve by irrational, chaotic forces of nature. We utterly detach ourselves from any need for God as anything more than the target of our rage or our mockery. Or, even worse, we redefine God by some other means of false religion entirely.

But if God is real, then that means that we don’t get to make the rules. We don’t get to be the arbiter and judge of our own lives.

And it is not enough to know that God exists. He must also be LORD. Plenty believe that God exists while also denying His right to judge. But if God is judge, then He has every right to assert His just standard upon us. And He will.

If we want to understand justice, then we have to change how we see God and only through the lens that the Scriptures give us.

We must change how we see ourselves

We have always seen ourselves as better than we really are. Very few of us would ever describe ourselves as evil, and yet that’s precisely what we are (yours truly included). We continue to believe, foolheartedly, that we can be the change we seek and that, by some miracle, we will solve equity and justice in our own power.

That’s not to say that we should just give up and quit. That would defeat the purpose of this article.

But we really are a nation of fools. Not more or less than any other nation, but surely we are not as smart as we think we are. We all think that we know justice. We think that we know what is fair. We think that we know what we deserve. In reality, we are only generally interested in ourselves and in worshipping the cult of “me.”

Some of us worship our skin color. For others of us, our national heritage. Some of us worship our wealth or our career choices. Some of us see ourselves as more beautiful than the rest. All of us believe that we are fundamentally and basically good with just a few rough edges.

Yet time and time again, we show each other just how uncivil and brutal we can be—how judgmental and utterly unfair we truly are.

One of our worst human failings is that we tend to compare ourselves to each other. And since no one wants to be at the bottom, we’ve got to find someone who we can make the lesser. So long as you are “not that guy,” you are good enough. Our self-justification is rooted in the words “at least I’m not like them.”

It’s hard to see our own evil when we compare ourselves to each other because we all look so far apart when we look from our level. It’s much easier to see it when we compare ourselves to a holy, infinitely just God.

I’m not like that white officer. I’m not like that black guy in handcuffs. I’m not like that woman throwing the brick through the window, or looting the Target, or like those people setting stores on fire.

The reality is that we are exactly like “them.” The artificial barriers of skin color and race that we erect around each other are only facades we use to cover up the real issue—that we are all just as bad as each other.

And because we don’t have a right understanding of God, we can’t possibly understand that we were made in His image and equally deserving of a basic human dignity. We may say that all people are created equal, but our practice as a society underscores what we truly believe.

Is the problem white privilege? Is the issue the overreach of an oppressive police state? Is the problem violent criminals in impoverished urban communities? Is it about tension between socio-economic classes? Is it the opportunity gap? Yes, it is all these things. And yet not a single one of these is the underlying root cause.

They are all the symptoms of a greater truth—that we are way more evil than we care to admit.

If we were truly honest about this, then we might be more empathetic, compassionate, and merciful towards one another. And sometimes we are. But never to the level required to prevent the senseless repetition of violence and tragedy that repeats itself over and over in this country.

We must change how we see justice

Now if we could change the way we see God and if we could change the way we see ourselves, then perhaps we would be in a position to change the way we see justice.

And what’s wrong with the way we see justice? Because we divorce justice from God, we fail to perceive the standard of justice correctly. Because we don’t see ourselves rightly, we judge others through a partial, self-interested lens, filled with bigotry and hypocrisy.

But there is something else. We don’t understand that we are all guilty in God’s courtroom and that God took it upon Himself to do something about it. This is at the heart of the Gospel, without which there can be no true understanding of justice.

In the greatest act of injustice ever recorded, the hero of my faith, this Jesus Christ of the Bible, was unjustly assaulted and killed on a cross by Roman law enforcement two thousand years ago. He was not just innocent, He was perfect.

The Bible declares that God sent Himself as Christ to live a perfect life and then die as a perfect sacrifice for mankind. “Why would God do that,” you ask? Because doing so allowed God to satisfy His perfect justice and at the same time show grace and mercy to sinners. In essence, God meted justice upon Himself, so that He could offer to us precisely the opposite of what we actually deserved.

This ultimate example of forgiveness, grace, and mercy that is perfectly balanced with justice fully satisfied is an utterly astonishing display of a kind that can only be called divine. It is beyond comprehension. And yet, it happened.

One who truly understands justice understands that we are all guilty before a perfectly righteous God and deserving of death, not life. One who truly understands justice understands that every sunrise we see is a gift of grace. One who truly understands justice knows that it is astounding that God saves anyone at all. And yet the call of the Gospel is open to all.

The conclusion

A complete understanding of justice does not prevent injustice, for there will always be many who reject God and a right view of themselves. The Gospel does not cure the injustice of the world in this life, much less in America. It most certainly will cure it in the life to come. God will judge the world, including every thought, action, and idle word you speak.

The truth is that we don’t truly want justice to fall upon us. We don’t want what we truly deserve. What we want is grace and mercy.

And that, my friends, is what God offers to you through the Gospel.