Are God’s love and justice opposed to each other? Some people seem to think so. As if God has a split personality, waking up some mornings “all about love” – a happy hippie spinning through the fields, smelling the flowers and exclaiming, Isn’t life so great? You’re all so beautiful! Then there are His bad days, when He wakes up on the wrong side of the bed “all about justice” – a cold and angry warrior who rolls down the street, sword in hand, yelling, Look out! I’m going to kill you all!
In the Bible, however, God’s love and justice are not contradictions; they are integrally intertwined. The Father’s love for the world gives rise to His justice for the world. Let’s look at how.
Lover of Justice
God loves justice. God is a “mighty King, lover of justice!” (Psalm 99:4). He shouts from the rooftops through Isaiah, “I, the Lord, love justice!” (Isaiah 61:8). Nicholas Wolterstorff observes that God’s justice is oriented toward human flourishing. It arises from a vision of God’s love permeating our community and the broader creation:
God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society—loves them . . . with the love of benevolent desire. God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, what the Old Testament writers call shalom. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined.¹
As Wolterstorff points out, God’s love and justice are not opposites in tension, but two sides of the same coin. They are not discordant chords from separate songs, but harmonious movements within the same symphony of Jesus’ story for the world.
God loves people. And because God loves people, there are good ways to treat each other and bad ways to treat each other. Because Jesus loves you and wants you to flourish, if I abuse, exploit, or cheat you, I do not treat you in the way you deserve as someone who is loved by Jesus. If I malign, molest, or murder you, I violate you as an object of God’s affection. I do violence to the dignity you bear as someone the Creator has created in his image and loves deeply.
I commit an injustice against you.
Comfort and Confrontation
Do we treat one another as those loved by God? Jesus says how we treat the vulnerable in our lives is how we treat Him (Matthew 25:40).
God stands against our injustice because He identifies in love with those we violate. God’s love is more than a comfort; it is a confrontation.
God’s love has teeth.
Injustice violates God’s love for the world. This is why, in the biblical vision, injustice is not limited to degrading others, but includes degrading ourselves. When we demean ourselves (through degrading behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, gluttonous eating, or drug abuse), we violate ourselves as an object of God’s affection. We do violence to God’s purposes for our flourishing. Our self-abuse is treason against God—suicide is only its most extreme form.
We live in myriad ways that proclaim our refusal of faith in God’s sovereign love for us, that declare our unwillingness to believe that God accepts us in Christ, that do violence loudly against God’s purposes for our well-being and flourishing.
This is also why Augustine made the bold claim that there can be no fully just city, no true res publica, where God is not honored as God. Idolatry and religious hypocrisy are injustice against God, a failure to treat God as his worth requires. And to not honor God as God is to attack the center in which the world’s shalom, or flourishing, is grounded, to fly a hijacked plane into the temple where heaven and earth meet, to swing a hammer against the foundation upon which God’s city for the world is built.
Injustice is a violation of God’s love for the world. Because He loves the world, He loves justice.
But there’s good news. We have a Crucified King, who in love for us bore the injustice of our world, to set things right and restore the just state of affairs we were made for: where humanity thrives and creation is restored in loving communion with God and one another.
¹Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 82.
Adapted from Joshua Ryan Butler’s book, “The Skeletons in God’s Closet” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014), pages 158-161. Joshua Ryan Butler is the Pastor of Local and Global Outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon.
Editor’s Note: Joshua Ryan Butler is the Main Session presenter at The Gospel and Justice event on May 19, 2018 at Shoreline Church in Monterey, California. During this event will explore how the gospel speaks to the issues of justice and how it should move us to bring the Good News of God into places of injustice. Topics include Human Trafficking, Racial Reconciliation, Sexuality & Gender, Poverty, and Conflict Resolution through the lens of God’s love for the lost and broken. We intend that every believer who attends this event would leave with clear direction to bring God’s love and justice to this world in tangible ways. For more information and to register, visit: shorelinechurch.org/the-gospel-and-justice/