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Justice, Mercy, and Me

James 2:13 “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.”

The only time I was accused of some wrongdoing that took me to court was in March of 1992 when I was managing a large apartment complex and had evicted 6 tenants in a month for various, legitimate reasons—mostly for non-payment of rent or for having a pet which was against their contract. One of them (let’s call her Tenant Z) I evicted because several other tenants had complained about her having a very large, barking, vicious dog living in her apartment. She turned it around on me and filed a lawsuit saying I was discriminating against her.

The apartment complex owners hired a lawyer and we thought we had a slam-dunk case. The tenant was claiming that I discriminated against her nationality, but I sincerely had no thought about her ethnicity. I was following the contract and was enforcing it for the sake of the apartment complex owners and in fairness to the other tenants who said the dog was a nuisance.

I was surprised by the judge’s ruling after he listened to all testimonies. He ruled that although he did not believe I acted in prejudice to evict Tenant Z, I had not established that the dog was living in the apartment. All our witnesses had testified that they had seen the dog tied outside the apartment or in the tenant’s car. The judge interpreted “the premises” to only be the apartment and not the property surrounding it and Tenant Z was allowed to stay.

Two months later, Tenant Z moved out for other reasons. When my husband went in to prepare the apartment for the next tenant, he found utter destruction that required major junk removal and repairs. Tenant Z had falsely accused me of discrimination, taken us to court and had essentially won on a technicality, and then proceeded to live with no regard for the property of others and failed to pay her rent. I fully believe she thought SHE was the one who had been wronged somehow and that justice should land in her favor. From my point of view, if true justice had been served to her, it would have meant eviction in March.

This story hopefully portrays how we are biased in regard to justice. Looking at justice with our own imperfect ability to judge, our propensity to downplay our own wrongdoing, our bent toward looking harshly at those who wrong us, and our ability to attribute a bad motive to the actions of others, we need to seek God’s help when making decisions in regard to what is just (when we are called upon to be the “judge”), whether it is in the case of two children who are fighting, a problem in a relationship we are in, a legal dispute we’re facing, or any other critical decision that requires a response from us.

Mercy needs to come into play, but it passes through our initial processing of the situation (judgement in the sense of fully understanding what happened), and then in wisdom we can choose to respond mercifully. Often a consequence must be handed to the child who has harmed another or disobeyed a rule, or an arrest of the drunk driver needs to be made, or an eviction needs to be issued to the tenant who breaks a contract and is not responsive to correction, or the bookkeeper who embezzled money from his employer needs to go to jail. BUT, whenever it is wise to choose mercy, it should be chosen.

Both mercy and justice characterize God, but we can tend to lean hard into one or the other characteristic in our understanding of Him. He will do what is just because He, and He alone, has the capacity to know the actions and motives of a person fully and accurately, and can apply justice according to His perfect wisdom. He also can choose mercy in his perfect love. We, as Christians, are to lean heavily into being merciful because we do not have perfect wisdom or love, and because we ourselves are flawed and cause harm to others but have received His mercy for our eternal outcome.

James 2:13 directs us to be merciful in our judgements of others. If we are, then God will be merciful in His dealings with us. The verse says there will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. This verse is the last one in a section of a letter written by James to the Jewish Christians entitled “a warning against prejudice” and expounds on believers who favor some people over others based on their financial status, but many other ways of dividing ourselves could be used as the example.

We are not to judge others in regard to what “category” they fall into, spiritual matters, or their motives for particular actions. We cannot know the motives of a person unless they tell us. Making a “generous assumption” about a person’s actions means attempting to attribute a good motive or reason to their action (or inaction) and applying good will toward them even when their goodness is not readily evident.

Personally, when it comes to spiritual justice in my own life, I am thankful for a God who sees me accurately, and yet chooses to be merciful to me. I have looked at His holiness and acknowledged my own falling short of His perfect standards, confessed my Sin to Him, and asked for Jesus to take my place in the sight of God. In His mercy He has received me as His own because of Jesus and His merciful work on the cross. The judgement falls on Jesus for what I did. What I deserve is not what I am going to get. That’s mercy. According to James 2, I must also choose to show mercy to others as He has shown even greater mercy to me. True mercy must define our heart’s posture toward others whenever possible. When justice in this life is ours to determine, we must do it in a way that prayerfully seeks wisdom before responding.

We are not to excuse every wrong that is done to us, but rather to consider mercy whenever possible, and to apply it in prayerful wisdom. A consequence may be the most merciful thing a person needs to help them change the course of wrong actions, as in the case of the speeding driver or the person who spends money on drugs instead of saving it to pay their rent. But our attitude is what God is looking at, and our consideration of mercy in these difficult situations is commanded of us.

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Words of Jesus)

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