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Love, Justice and Confrontation
The prison governor was an immensely impressive, dynamic, eloquent and young African–American woman known as ‘Chief Jennifer’.
Our team assembled at the start of the visit, together with those who ran the prison. Chief Jennifer welcomed us with these words: ‘Greetings in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’
She told us that there were 2.5 million people in prison in the USA, each costing the tax payer $24,000 a year. Only 3 per cent will stay in prison for the rest of their lives. 97 per cent of those presently incarcerated will, at some point, be released back into society. For that reason, she continued, there were good secular reasons for wanting to see change in their lives, besides her own desire as a Christian for them to experience redemption.
The prison was run not just with justice, but also with love. All wrong attitudes and actions were lovingly confronted. There was no bad language, no graffiti and a learned respectful behaviour. We spent some time with a group of men who had recently completed an Alpha Course there and heard their testimonies of changed lives.
There are some themes in the Bible which occur over and over again. Love and justice are two such themes. God is a God of love. God is a God of justice. His justice is not opposed to his love. Rather, his justice is part of his love. Supremely, we see this in the cross of Christ.
1. Justice, mercy and the poorProverbs 21:5-16
‘Good people celebrate when justice triumphs, but for the workers of evil it’s a bad day’ (v.15, MSG). A society without justice is a terrifying place to live. Evil is unrestrained. Bribery rules. The poor, in particular, suffer. We see the terrifying results of a lack of justice in many societies around the world. The riots in London last year gave us a glimpse of what a society without the rule of law might look like.
Justice is a means of protecting society – especially the poor. The writer of Proverbs says that one of the reasons our prayers might not be answered is that we have not heard the cries of the poor: ‘If you shut your ears to the cry of the poor, you too will cry out and not be answered’ (v.13).
Justice also acts as a deterrent. It brings terror to evildoers (v.15b). ‘When a mocker is punished, the simple gain wisdom’ (v.11a). Where the rule of law operates, it has a double benefit. When justice is done, it brings ‘joy to the righteous’ (v.15a). It also deters evildoers. It brings ‘terror to evildoers’ (v.15b). Justice leads to a society where people feel protected and secure.
But justice, grace and mercy need to go together. ‘The wicked crave evil; their neighbours get no mercy from them’ (v.10).
Lord, we pray for justice in our world. I pray for the work of the International Justice Mission and other organisations that are seeking to bring justice to parts of the world where injustice reigns.
2. Love, confrontation and forgiveness2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11
Many of us tend to avoid confrontation. We find it difficult. It is not just the fear of rejection or being unpopular, it is also the fear that we might make the situation worse by fuelling the fires of anger and resentment.
Others seem positively to enjoy confrontation. If we look forward to confrontation, if we find it easy to put others right, to correct and to criticise, it is possible that we are not acting out of love.
Paul loved the Corinthians deeply. Yet he did not shy away from confrontation. He certainly did not enjoy it. It caused him ‘great distress’, ‘anguish of heart’ and ‘many tears’ (2:4). ‘There was pain enough just in writing that letter, more tears than ink on the parchment. But I didn’t write it to cause you pain; I wrote it so you would know how much I care – oh, more than care – love you!’ (v.4, MSG).
Confronting people with the truth may be very painful. Truth, like surgery, may hurt, but it also cures. Operations like this must be carried out with love. We do not know exactly who or what Paul is referring to here. However, it may be the man that Paul had denounced in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 (who had been living with his father’s wife). Paul had insisted that he be thrown out of the church. However, now he is saying that this man has received punishment enough. He urges them to forgive and comfort him, and to reaffirm their love for him (2 Corinthians 2:7–8). Justice had been done. Now was the time for mercy, grace, love and forgiveness.
Paul was very quick to forgive. ‘Anyone you forgive I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake’ (v.10). When Paul forgave, he forgot – hardly even remembering whether there was anything to forgive.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was once reminded by a friend of a cruel thing that had happened to her many years earlier. Clara seemed not to be able to remember the incident.
‘Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?’ the friend asked insistently.
‘No,’ Clara answered calmly. ‘I distinctly remember forgetting that.’
Forgiveness is absolutely vital in the Christian church. Unforgiveness is one of the ways that the devil can get in – it opens a door for his schemes. Forgiveness shuts him out: ‘In order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes’ (v.11).
Lord, help us to spot the schemes of the devil. Help us to be quick to forgive and love one another and shut Satan out of the church.
3. Pride, repentance and success2 Chronicles 31:2-33:20
God himself is not afraid of confrontation! In this passage we see how, in his love, God confronted both an essentially good leader who became proud and an evil leader who was enabled to repent. It is such a relief to read about a good king. Hezekiah restored the temple. He led by example – he contributed from his own possessions (31:3). The people responded generously (v.5). The Lord blessed them and they had plenty to eat for everyone with food left over (v.10, MSG).
‘Everything [Hezekiah] took up, whether it had to do with worship in God’s Temple or the carrying out of God’s Law and Commandments, he did well in a spirit of prayerful worship. He was a great success’ (vv.20–21, MSG). He had an ‘exemplary track record’ (32:1, MSG).
All this did not save Hezekiah from coming under attack. But when the attack did come from Sennacherib, Hezekiah inspired the people, ‘Be strong! Take courage! Don’t be intimidated … There are more on our side than on their side. He only has a bunch of mere men; we have our God to help us and fight for us! Morale surged. Hezekiah’s words put steel in their spines’ (32:7–8, MSG).
In our own lives sometimes we face seemingly overwhelming problems. Christians in the UK, for example, seem to be like a tiny minority facing a vast army of secularism and hostility to God. But the good news is that there is a greater power with us, and with them there is only the ‘arm of flesh’. With us is the Lord our God to ‘help us and to fight our battles’ (v.8).
There is always a danger that success will lead to pride. People look up to leaders and give them honour. Indeed, we are supposed to honour our leaders. But any of us in a position of leadership need to be aware that this honour has danger written all over it. If pride creeps in we need to repent quickly and humble ourselves.
As soon as Hezekiah was successful, arrogance crept in. When God confronted him, thankfully, ‘He repented of the pride in his heart’ (v.26) and God blessed him again with great riches and honour (v.27). He succeeded in everything he undertook (v.30).
Then, mysteriously, ‘God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart’ (v.31). It is a dark night of the soul. There are times in our lives when it appears as though – to use C.S. Lewis’ description of his experience after his wife died – ‘a door has slammed in our face’.
Don’t be discouraged if there are times when you do not sense God’s presence. Sometimes God is silent and imperceptible. We need to continue to be faithful when God tests our hearts. Hezekiah had a good heart – his life was full of acts of devotion (v.32) and was honoured when he died (v.33).
His son’s life seems to be almost a complete reversal of his own. Manasseh started out doing evil in the eyes of the Lord (33:2). In fact, it is hard to think of anyone who did more evil than Manasseh. ‘He burned his own sons in a sacrificial rite … He practiced witchcraft and fortunetelling. He held séances and consulted spirits from the underworld. Much evil – in God’s view a career in evil. And God was angry’ (v.6, MSG).
But no one is beyond redemption. No matter how far we have fallen, if like Manasseh we repent and turn to God we can receive forgiveness.
God confronted Manasseh. ‘Now that he was in trouble, he went to his knees in prayer asking for help – total repentance before the God of his ancestors. As he prayed, God was touched; God listened and brought him back to Jerusalem as king’ (v.12, MSG).
This is one of the reasons why I love to visit prisons such as the one we visited in the USA. No one is beyond redemption. Jesus has made this possible through his death on the cross where, in the words of John Eddison, ‘Love and justice mingle, truth and mercy meet.’
Lord, thank you that none of us are beyond redemption and forgiveness. Keep us from pride. Help us to humble ourselves under your mighty hand (1 Peter 5:6). Thank you that when we repent you are merciful and forgive and restore us. Thank you for your love and justice. Thank you most of all for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ which makes it possible for you to bring love and justice together. Thank you that you do not treat us as our sins deserve. Thank you that you have mercy on us. Help us to show your love and bring your justice to the world in Jesus’ name.
‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.’
… Or presumably a quarrelsome husband!