When we suffer, which we will, there will often be mystery. Will there also be faith?
In Christian thought, faith is never naïve or gullible, but rather relies on the strength of its object. Faith that depends on a God who is a cruel tyrant or cheap trickster will be bitterly disappointed in the end.
When Christians think seriously about evil and suffering, one of the paramount reasons we’re certain God can be trusted is because he sent his Son to suffer in our place. The One for whom we live knows what suffering is about—not merely in the way he knows everything, but by experience.
When we’re convinced we’re suffering unjustly, however, we may cry out for justice. We want God to be just and exonerate us immediately; we want God to be fair and mete out suffering immediately to those who deserve it.
We Make Assumptions
The trouble with such justice and fairness, though, is that, if it were truly just and truly fair and as prompt as we demand, we would soon be begging for mercy, for love, for forgiveness—for anything but justice. For very often what I really mean when I ask for justice is implicitly circumscribed by three assumptions, assumptions not always recognized:
- I want this justice to be dispensed immediately.
- I want justice in this instance, but not necessarily in every instance.
- I presuppose that in this instance I have grasped the situation correctly.
We need to examine these three assumptions. First, the Bible assures us that God is a just God, and that justice will be done in the end, and will be seen to be done. But when we urgently plead for justice, we usually mean something more than that. We mean we want vindication now! Second, to ask for such instantaneous justice in every instance is inconceivable: it would too often find me on the wrong side, too often find me implicitly inviting my own condemnation. But justice instantaneously applied only when it favors me is not justice at all. Selective justice that favors one individual above another is simply another name for corruption. And no one wants a corrupt God. And third, when I plead so passionately for justice, it’s usually because I think I understand the situation pretty well. I wouldn’t be quite so crass as actually to say I need to explain it to God, but that is pretty close to the way I act.
Someone might object that since the psalmist frequently appeals for justice, for vindication, it cannot be wrong to do so. And I agree, so long as those three hidden assumptions aren’t surreptitiously operating together. For instance, if the psalmist—or any believer since then for that matter—appeals to God for justice, not simply in this instance but because God is a just God, the appeal is somewhat transformed. If such a believer also recognizes that the Lord’s timing is perfect, that unless the Lord extends his mercy we will all be consumed (after all, the psalmist asks for mercy more often than he asks for vindication), and that sometimes our cries for justice cannot be more than vague but intense appeals for help, precisely because we don’t understand what’s going on very well, then the nasty, hidden assumptions that frequently mar our cries for justice have largely been done away with.
We Demand Instant Gratification
Suppose God gave instant gratification for every good deed, every kind thought, every true word; and an instant jolt of pain for every malicious deed, every dirty thought, and every false word. Suppose the pleasure and pain were in strict proportion to the measure of goodness or badness God saw in us. What kind of world would result?
Many writers have asked this sort of question. They conclude that such a system would turn us into automata. We wouldn’t join in worship because of the intrinsic worth of God, but because it gave us selfish pleasure. We wouldn’t refrain from lying because it’s wrong and abominated by the God we love, but because we wanted to avoid the next nasty jolt. We wouldn’t love our neighbor because our hearts had been transformed by the love of God, but because we preferred personal pleasure to personal pain.
I think if God were to institute such a world order, things would be far worse yet. God doesn’t look only on our external acts. He looks on our heart. Such a system of enforced and ruthlessly “just” discipline wouldn’t change our hearts. We’d be smoldering with resentment. Our obedience would be external and apathetic; our hearts and devotion would not be won over. The jolts might initially gain protestations of repentance, but they wouldn’t command our allegiance. And since God examines the heart, he’d be constantly administering the jolts. The world would become a searing pain; the world would become hell.
Do you really want nothing but totally effective, instantaneous justice? Then go to hell.
We Assume a Standard
There is another factor we must frankly face. When we ask for justice, we presuppose some standard of justice. If the standards are God’s, he has made them clear enough: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). We have returned to hell by another route.
We must be grateful God is a God of justice. If he weren’t just, if there were no assurance justice would be served in the end, then the entire moral order would collapse (as it has in atheistic humanism). But we must be equally grateful that God is not only a God of justice. He is a God of love, of mercy, of compassion, of forgiveness.
We Receive Vindication
Nowhere is this character more effectively demonstrated than at the cross. At one level, this was the most unjust act—the least fair act—in all of history. He who was sinless became our sin offering; he who had never rebelled against his heavenly Father was brutally executed by rebels; he who had never known what it was not to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength was abandoned by God, prompting him to cry out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
And it was this act, this most “unfair” act, that satisfied divine justice, and brought sinful rebels like me to experience God’s forgiveness, to taste the promise of an eternity of undeserved bliss.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted except from Don Carson’s book How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker Academic, 2006). Baker Academic is a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.