Anyone else out there obsessed with discussing personality tests? In college and in seminary, at least, we would sit around and have endless discussions about our Meyers Briggs letters, our Enneagram numbers, our DISC profile, or whether we were more like a lion, beaver, otter, or golden retriever.
I bring this up because, as useful as I find it to understand how my brain and my emotions works, some of the tests they use are crazy making. There’s one question in particular on the Meyers Briggs tests that drives Christians batty:
“Which do you value more, mercy or justice?”
I understand what they’re trying to get at – in difficult situations, do you use your emotions verses logic to make decision. And in reality, most of us do tend to lean one way or the other.
Here’s the thing: God is both. Perfectly both. He is the definition of both “merciful” and “just” – literally. Mercy and justice derive their existence from His being.
The thing is, it seems like it’s very difficult for us to reconcile those two ideas in God. Some cultures, or denominations, or maybe us at some points in our lives, tend to think of a “God” who’s all about justice – he’s righteous, mighty, powerful, and can’t put up with sin. But such a god has no room for love. So we end up with the picture of a great vindictive judge in the sky who’s ready to smite us. Either that, or at other points we think of a “God” who’s all about mercy and love, who forgives sin. So we end up with a picture of a senile grandfather in the sky, who sort of chuckles and waves off our sin. But such a god has no healing to offer a world that is broken by sin, and no help for us when we’re trapped in patterns of sin.
There are a couple of things wrong with the pictures described above – neither of them describe the God that we worship as Christians. Jesus did not stay “in the sky.” He came down and was born just like we are, and lived a life just like we do, with hard work, temptation, and bodily fluids. (Really. Just let me remind you: Jesus pooped.)
But secondly, it was in the life and work of Jesus that God carried out to perfection both His mercy and His justice.
He is perfectly good, and sin just can’t exist in his presence. Our sin drove us away from Him because sin is incompatible with Him, and living in in made us incompatible with him. It’s like light and dark – you can call it “right” and “wrong,” but it’s not that way because God arbitrarily chose some actions to be “sin” and the rest to be “okay.” It’s just the way it really is – sin kills, makes dark, drives us away from God. God can’t compromise that about Himself, can’t just say “well, it’s cool, I like you and I know you kinda tried to be a good person, so we’ll just say it’s no big and come on up.” It doesn’t work that way. Someone had to pay for our sin in order to satisfy God’s justice.
But God wasn’t willing to abandon us to death. He never gave up on the human race. He knew that any sort of temporary payment system – like the Jewish sacrificial system – wouldn’t cut it, because we would keep sinning. We needed a permanent payment for our sin, to set us free from the law of sin and death. So he paid the ultimate price, not asking us to pay for our own sin, but sending his Son to take it for us.
Mercy and justice – God’s justice perfectly satisfied by God’s own supreme sacrifice.
Yet it isn’t just a story of payment – of death in our place. He went beyond the substitutionary atonement of our sins by his death, and rose to life again. Being God, the grave couldn’t hold Jesus. Being the Trinity, God the Son could not stay rent apart from the Father and the Spirit. Jesus defeated death, being the first to rise from the dead to not just having his old life back, but a totally new and perfect body. That’s what we have to look forward to – a life just like that, where we’re restored to what we were meant to be at creation, or perhaps even more.
It’s still easy for me, as I suppose it might be for you, to fall back into that old dichotomy when thinking about God. I either come whining to the grandfather God who I think will listen lovingly, but who I don’t think has any power to rescue me from sin, or I run scared from the vindictive God of judgment, who I don’t think will forgive me. When that happens, I remember Jesus. (It’s handy that we rehearse Jesus’ story every week in church, to remind me.) In Jesus, God perfectly revealed himself as both righteous and powerful, the enemy of sin, yet the forgiver, who died in my place to rescue me from sin. I can imagine Jesus extending his nail-pierced hand to me. He usually doesn’t say anything, but if I had to put his expression into words, it would be something like, “I get what you’re going through. I will always love you anyway. And I am strong to save you.”