Trusting Christ’s Mercy, Justice and Timing

As someone who helps to facilitate both men’s recovery and separation/divorce ministries at The Crossing, I spend a fair amount of time talking with people who have been seriously ill-used, typically by someone who – at one point in time, anyway – offered up a “lifelong” declaration of love and commitment. If you have yet to experience this type of betrayal, please trust me when I say that nothing in this life provides a more accurate sense of how Jesus surely must have felt as He hung on the cross than the lies, manipulation, and abandonment suffered at the hands of someone who previously professed deep love and concern for us.

Not surprisingly, then, two of the most common stumbling blocks to living out steadfast Christian faith that I see in the lives of many folks I meet seem to hover around the intertwined concepts of justice and reward.

Initially, we may find it difficult to continue following Jesus when our lives start to get hard because we “aren’t quite sure” that it really will be “worth it.” Will our sufferings in this life on His behalf really be rewarded as richly as Paul says they will in 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 and 2 Corinthians 4:16-17? How can we be certain? I want to say that whenever we do finally cross that bridge of faith where we learn to trust in our future reward in Christ, we are empowered to set aside the pursuit of earthly riches, power, fame, comfort or whatever other temporal goals we previously had.

What I have discovered in the past several years, however, is a great number of Christian believers – myself included – successfully get past the desire to pursue earthly treasures only to trip and fall flat on their faces when it comes to trusting Jesus with settling various issues of injustice suffered at the hands of people who, by all earthly standards, are “getting away with it.” Right away, of course, anyone can see how self-contradicting it is to trust Jesus to reward the faithful but not trust Him to punish the guilty. It really makes no logical sense to live out of this contradiction, and yet the human heart is very often unwilling to be persuaded by appeals to reason (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

While I still struggle to maintain a firm foothold on the perfect justice of Christ, I am very much aware that, 1) I personally would not want Jesus to give me the reward that I so richly deserve, and 2) I am very clearly called to show grace to offenders in much the same way that I myself have been shown grace (Matthew 18:21-35). Knowing these things (head knowledge) and living them out consistently (heart response) are two very different things. Can I really trust God to settle all accounts on that Great Day when He consummates all of human history? Well, you know, I want to…

As always, I run to the Word of God for help. In this case, the issue of not taking God’s law into our own hands is most clearly demonstrated to me by a breathtaking passage in 1 Samuel 24 in which David refuses to violate God’s law by taking Saul’s life.

I have often heard the question that runs something like this: “How can God call David ‘a man after my own heart’ when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite?” To answer that question, one might first be tempted to point to Psalm 51, written after David finally repents and acknowledges his sins before God – hey, I know plenty of dudes who do not even blink when their sins are pointed out to them – but I would instead point to 1 Samuel 24 to “prove” that David really did know God and (more importantly) sought to live his life in accord with God’s revealed will.

If you do not know the story of King Saul and David, suffice to say that Saul had sinned greatly against the nation of Israel as a whole and David in particular. All of these sins, of course, were ultimately against God. So, after Saul has perpetrated injustice after injustice against David, he decides to take his troops out into the field to hunt David down and kill him. Stepping into a cave “to relieve himself,” Saul unwittingly puts himself right into the hands of David and his mighty men. David’s companions see the hand of God in this turn of events and urge David to slay Saul and walk away with a clean conscience. David, however, demonstrates that he better knows the heart of God by allowing Saul to leave the cave unharmed. Following Saul out of the cave, David demonstrates his trust in God’s justice with the famous phrase, “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.” (1 Samuel 24:12)

By following God’s law, not the “wisdom” of men, David is betting everything he has – after all, Saul’s men could have struck him down right then and there – that God will set accounts right at some point in the future; David himself does not need to lift his hand against Saul. It is almost unbelievable that David refuses to “bend” God’s will to his own benefit, as we all tend to do, and that he very deliberately ignores the voices of others goading him to strike down Saul, a committed enemy who has, after all, been so clearly engaged in several acts of unrighteous behavior toward David and his men. I mean, come on…here is one guy that very obviously deserves any misfortune that comes his way, even if that includes being run through with a spear while “doing his business” in a cave.

Having failed to live up to David’s standard of righteousness countless times, I am being completely honest when I say that one of the most difficult challenges facing any believer is to “stay their hand” when divine providence affords us an opportunity to exact justice on a committed adversary. It’s somewhat easy, I think, to track with David through the first two phrases of his declaration of God’s righteousness (“May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you…”), but the moment of truth really comes when we get to live out the “my hand shall not be against you” part.

I can recall countless conversations wherein someone who has behaved horribly – adultery, theft, lying, sometimes all three – appears to be getting away with their depraved acts of disobedience, and the victims (quite understandably!) wring their hands and wonder if God is really keeping score, or if He has somehow missed out on what is being perpetrated on one of His faithful followers. Granted that none of us is without sin, and that none of us can stand up to the White Throne judgments of God without Jesus as our intermediary, still…we feel as though we are sitting by helplessly as God is being mocked, laws are being broken, and faithful individuals are scorned, abused and crushed.

What I have learned over the course of several years, through repeated lessons, is that refusing to lift our hand against an enemy “gets us out of the middle” so God can, in fact, deal with that other person. As long as we insist on executing our own (fallen) version of what justice “should” look like, we effectively deny the gospel message by insisting that “our own will be done” since it doesn’t seem as though God’s will is timely enough to suit our preferences. Jesus very clearly says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6), so there really is no confusion about what God has said. The only thing that is left unclear is whether or not we will believe Him.

1 Samuel 24:11-15 (ESV)
See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! May the LORD therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”

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