Not too long ago, I was sitting with someone in prayer and he was feeling deeply hurt. He had gone through a conflict with his wife and he was left licking his wounds. In the aftermath of this experience, he was trying to sort through a very important question:
“How does God want me to respond?”
In these moments of hurt, we often long for justice, but our desire for justice can sometimes look more like vengeance or wrath. We may want God to punish the person who has wounded us. We may want them to suffer what we’ve suffered. At a minimum, we may want God to let our perpetrator know how they’ve hurt us and make them apologize. As I prayed with my friend, this is where he was. He was turning towards God, which was good. But, he was stuck in his desire for his wife to get payback, and his prayers kept returning to the same place: she needs to know the truth, and I’m the one to explain it to her.
We’ve all been there. When a friend, co-worker, spouse, or family member hurts us badly, we may feel shame, rage, confusion, vulnerability, or some combination of all of these things. The discomfort of our emotions can keep us fixated on the encounter, and our prayers may get stuck on our desire for justice. We want God to fix the wrong done to us, so we don’t feel so bad anymore. The concept that undergirds our prayers is the promise God makes about justice. We turn hopefully, longingly, towards God and ask him to make things right.
The scriptures bear witness to the truth that God is a God of justice, but they also indicate that our conception of justice can diverge from God’s. There can be a wide gap between what we long for and what God commits to doing. It’s not wrong for us to put our hope in God’s justice, but we must understand how God brings about his justice in the world.
One of the earliest and clearest examples of the LORD working justice for his people happens in the Exodus story. As the Israelites fled their abusers, they looked back and saw the Ancient Egyptians pursuing them. They were trying to get away from slavery, and those very people who had enslaved them were now chasing them down. This was unjust, and they turned toward the LORD to cry out for help. Here is God’s response through Moses:
“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” ~Exodus 14:14, ESV
This promise of God fighting for us lies at the heart of our cry for divine justice. This is what we want, but trusting in God’s justice makes demands on us: “we have only to be silent.” If we want God to work justice on our behalf, we often times must not participate, or participate to a minimal degree. This is the pattern for how the LORD himself fights for us. He is the one who defends and delivers us. The Psalms record people making direct appeal to God for justice, and this dynamic is at work:
“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Psalm 18:2, ESV
“Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!” ~Psalm 43:1, ESV
“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” ~Psalm 62:8, ESV
The consistent tone of these prayers is the same as God’s word to the Israelites in the Exodus. We prayerfully put our cause into God’s hands and trust that he will fight for us. We take refuge in him and trust that He will defend us and help us. Our role is often passive or even silent. This is exactly what Jesus did when he stood before Pilate:
When he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. ~Mattew 27:12-14, ESV
Jesus is our model, so this means, you and I are encouraged to trust that God will fight for us as we remain silent. When we feel aggrieved, hurt, betrayed, or sinned against in any way, the LORD says, “I will fight for you. Turn to me. Trust in me. Let me handle it.”
But what does the LORD’s justice look like?
When God fights for us, His justice is simultaneously much weaker and much more powerful than we expect. A helpful example of God’s justice is found in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.1 In it, a young man commits murder and gets away with it. He evades detection by any witnesses and the police are stumped as to who committed the crime.
It seems as though he has escaped justice because no human holds him accountable. But over the subsequent weeks and months, we see the LORD’s justice as this young man’s life begins to unravel. The guilt he feels over this heinous act weighs heavily upon his conscience. The more he denies his wrongdoing the greater his psychological break with reality becomes. He experiences inner world disintegration that spills over into bodily catastrophe. He gets sick. He can’t eat. He is overcome by anxiety. This is the LORD’s justice.
It’s clear that the LORD does this work out of love. It’s this inner turmoil that ultimately leads him to repentance and healing. When he can take it no more, he confesses his crime to the whole of creation (and eventually the police) and then he finds peace and restoration.
He suddenly remembered Sonya’s words: “Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth, because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer!’ ” He trembled all over as he remembered it. And so crushed was he by the hopeless anguish and anxiety of this whole time, and especially of the last few hours, that he simply threw himself into the possibility of this wholesome, new, full sensation. It came to him suddenly in a sort of fit, caught fire in his soul from a single spark, and suddenly, like a flame, engulfed him. Everything softened in him all at once, and the tears flowed. He simply fell to the earth where he stood…2
This confession is beautiful, and it changes everything for him. It results in his punishment – he is shipped off to Siberia – but it also saves his soul. Telling the truth about his sin brings restoration to his inner world, and this matters more than anything in the external world, Siberia included. His confession and repentance make space for God’s healing presence.
This same paradigm plays out in my life and yours. When the LORD fights on our behalf, he does so in the soul of our perpetrator. If someone has sinned against you, this sin will weigh on their conscience. If they acted with disrespect towards you, then they will carry around the weight of sin rooted in dishonoring an image-bearer. This sin will stand in the way of their communion with the LORD. They will need to tend to it – acknowledge it, repent of it, and seek the LORD’s forgiveness – if they want to move forward with a life of peace, hope, and love. If not, they will harden their conscience and live cut off from an awareness of the LORD’s presence all around them. This spiritual alienation is the worst punishment of all. It is only when they return to the LORD in repentance that they will be able to find healing and redemption.
At any moment this is available. At any moment they can turn to the LORD and confess their sin and receive mercy, but it’s precisely at that moment of repentance that the fullness of the LORD’s justice comes to fruition. As the LORD forgives them, they are renewed into the way of love. Their heart has owned the sin they committed against you and your relationship is on the path to restoration. Justice and mercy come together in a moment of tenderness as your perpetrator confesses his sin against you before the LORD. This doesn’t always play out nice and neat, but the general framework is foundational and true. This is how the LORD works justice in the soul.
For those of us who experience hurt, this is our hope. God is a God of justice who will fight for us in the soul of the one who wronged you. This is certain. He will bring our perpetrators to justice and this justice is most beautifully expressed as they are met with mercy. The invitation God makes to you and to me is to trust in Him. Trust that God is your defender. Trust that God fights for you. Trust that all this complex soul work will take place in the soul of the person who wronged you. Trust that you will be vindicated, even if that final and full vindication doesn’t come until your resurrection.
In the meantime, we wait. We can make choices to leave harmful relationships when we have the option, but we never take up the role of judge or executioner of justice. This is God’s work. Our role is to wait and trust. While we wait, we long for God to act, but we don’t wish alienation from God on any soul. We want his justice to come to fruition in confession, repentance, and ultimately mercy. As we wait, we find commonality with Christ who suffered unjustly yet still loved those who wronged him. His love strengthens us as we wait, and we know justice and vindication are certain to come to us because they came to him.
This can be a difficult thing to do, and it can require much, much time in prayer. A spiritual director can be a helpful companion as you pray your way through your hurts.