Typically when I preach, I open with some illustration to break the ice. I don’t have an icebreaker, but I do have an iceberg. This iceberg is an image that I hope will inform how you pray, how you love other members of the church, and how you seek to promote mercy and justice in our society. The tip of the iceberg is the killing of George Floyd. The iceberg underneath is 400 years of various forms of racial injustice in our nation.
Do you see the killing of George Floyd as part of a larger pattern? If you don’t, one possible reason is simply not having, or not noticing, as many data points as others. Consider the possibility that a pattern objectively exists, but that you have not yet discerned it.
Those who do see a pattern frequently point to what they have experienced. What their parents and grandparents have experienced. What their children and grandchildren have experienced. To you, brothers and sisters, I simply say, I grieve with you.
Reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, the journalist Elaina Plott observed, “Crises are only political until they are personal.” Of course, that’s not the whole story. Far from it. But I think this applies to both the pandemic of the past few months and the protests of the past week.
What do those who are the most personally affected by these events make of them? What role should that play in how we assess what’s going on? Consider what New York University law professor Bryan Stevenson told a reporter this week about why black people in particular are protesting:
It’s not just anger over what happened to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. It is anger about continuing to live in a world where there is this presumption of dangerousness and guilt wherever you go. I’m 60 years old and have been practicing law for 35 years. I have a lot of honorary degrees and went to Harvard. And I still go places where I am presumed dangerous. I have been told to leave courtrooms because the presumption was that I was the defendant and not the lawyer. I have been pulled out of my car by police who pointed a gun on me. And I can just tell you that, when you have to navigate this presumption of guilt, day in and day out, and when the burden is on you to make the people around you see you as fully human and equal, you get exhausted.
The question I will try to answer in this article, with a brief exposition of Psalm 94, is this: “What should you do when injustice seems to prevail?”
This world is riddled with injustice. Spin the globe, then put your finger down. If you land on water, consider what cargo ships held that crossed those seas for centuries. If you strike earth, you will likely have touched some form of serious, disruptive, longstanding injustice. Psalm 94 is relevant to all of them. And it would be worthwhile to apply this psalm to many other injustices occurring around us, such as stores and businesses being looted. But my application here will primarily focus on the racial injustices that those other injustices revolve around. The killing of George Floyd is forcing a reckoning with the legacy of racism, both personal and institutional, in our nation’s past and present. I intend to reckon with that legacy, in some small measure, under the supremacy of Scripture.
The killing of George Floyd is forcing a reckoning with the legacy of racism, both personal and institutional, in our nation’s past and present.
When injustice seems to prevail, here are five things we should do.
1. Lament the injustices.
We see this in verses 1 to 7. Look at verse 1: “O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!” In this instance, what’s wrong for humans is right for God. He’s the Creator; we are mere creatures. As individuals and as private citizens, it’s wrong for us to take vengeance. But God is the sovereign Lord and judge of all. It is right for him to fully repay sin.
God’s prerogative to avenge sin is an effect of his holiness, a facet of his glory, a cause for praise, and a proper object of our petition. When you are treated unjustly, it is right to ask God to avenge that injustice. See verse 2: “Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve.” This prayer is prompted by the prevalence of injustice. Wickedness is winning. The psalmist is calling on God to settle the score.
God’s prerogative to avenge sin is an effect of his holiness, a facet of his glory, a cause for praise, and a proper object of our petition. When you are treated unjustly, it is right to ask God to avenge that injustice.
We read in verse 3: “O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” That cry—O LORD, how long?—is the essence of lament. Charles Spurgeon remarked on this cry of anguish: “Many a time has this bitter complaint been heard in the dungeons of the Inquisition, at the whipping posts of slavery, and in the prisons of oppression. In due time God will publish his reply, but the full end is not yet.”
What is lament? Mark Vroegop explains:
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is not only how Christians grieve; it’s the way Christians praise God through their sorrows. Lament is a pathway to praise when life gets hard. . . . Laments use the honest rehearsing of grief in order to deepen our confidence in God’s grace. . . . The elements of lament are (1) turning to God in prayer, (2) bringing our complaints, (3) asking boldly, and (4) choosing to trust (or praise).
By the way, Vroegop’s forthcoming book, Weep With Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Crossway, 2020), is devoted to the subject of racial lament.
We’ll return to the taunts in verses 4 and 7 in a moment. For now, look again at verses 5 and 6:
They crush your people, O LORD,
and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner,
and murder the fatherless;
Our situation differs from ancient Israel’s, of course, in that God has no special covenant with the United States. And we are focusing on the suffering of people as image-bearers, not the more specific subset of what God’s people suffer because they are God’s people. But there are also striking parallels. The widow, the sojourner, and the fatherless were the most vulnerable members of Ancient Near Eastern society. And to be black in America today is to be vulnerable. Black Americans remain vulnerable to a host of dangers, liabilities, and disadvantages that don’t confront white Americans in the same way or to the same degree.
Lament involves godly, trusting complaint. Not complaining to others about God, but complaining about suffering and injustice to God. In the course of his complaint, in verses 5 and 6, the psalmist names and condemns specific injustices, and so should we.
- It is wrong for a handcuffed, unarmed man to be asphyxiated by a police officer’s knee pressed to his throat.
- It is wrong for an unarmed man to be chased down and shot to death by private citizens.
- It is wrong for persons made in God’s image to be treated as inferior, or unwelcome, or a threat, because of the color of their skin.
- It is wrong for law enforcement officers to use excessive force against those who are protesting peacefully.
- And there are many other injustices that each of us could name, and should name in prayer.
In verses 4 and 7, those trampling the vulnerable add insult to injury. Verse 4: “They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.” Verse 7: “and they say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.” They are attempting to insult not just man, but God.
How should we respond to such unbelieving defiance?
2. Confront the lies.
This is what verses 8 to 11 model for us:
Understand, O dullest of the people!
Fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke?
He who teaches man knowledge—
the LORD—knows the thoughts of man,
that they are but a breath.
Every sin lies. The fundamental lie that sin tells, to justify and defend itself, is that it will not be repaid. That’s the taunt we saw in verse 7. And here are the answers.
- Do you think God doesn’t hear what you say about him? Who gave you your ears?
- Do you think God doesn’t see everything you do? Who gave you your eyes?
- Do you think you will ultimately get away with sin? How can you be so confident you will escape the judgment of the God who rules over all nations?
When injustice seems to prevail, we can begin to doubt that God will ever judge, or that he will judge justly. Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
To be black in America today is to be vulnerable. Black Americans remain vulnerable to a host of dangers, liabilities, and disadvantages that don’t confront white Americans in the same way or to the same degree.
Every injustice rests on a lie: “This person isn’t made in God’s image,” or, “This person doesn’t deserve the same rights I do.” And every injustice broadcasts a lie: “God won’t judge me for this.” Brothers and sisters, confront all those lies. Don’t let them get any foothold in your heart. And, with gentleness and patience, with speech seasoned with the salt of grace, confront those lies in conversation with others.
3. Rest in God’s promises.
Rest in God’s promises. This is what the psalmist himself does, and commends to us, in verses 12 to 15:
Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD,
and whom you teach out of your law,
to give him rest from days of trouble,
until a pit is dug for the wicked.
For the LORD will not forsake his people;
he will not abandon his heritage;
for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it.
Mark the difference between how God deals with the righteous and the wicked in times of distress. We see here that the righteous turn to God, study his Word, and are disciplined by God in difficult days. That discipline leads to fruitful rest. Divine discipline produces rest in us even as the world rages around us.
By contrast, the wicked are digging their own grave. As Paul says in Romans 2:5, they are “storing up wrath” for themselves “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
Divine discipline produces rest in us even as the world rages around us.
God promises to judge all injustice fully and finally. While it isn’t the only response, one necessary response when injustice seems to prevail is to wait patiently for God to judge. Follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. As 1 Peter 2:23 tells us, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Verses 14 and 15 tell us that, when evil seems to have the upper hand, we can be confident that God will one day right all wrongs, and will one day vindicate his people, because he has promised. As verse 14 says, “For the LORD will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage.” There are only two reasons why someone would default on a promise: inability or unfaithfulness. There isn’t a hint of either in God. So rest in his promises.
4. Rejoice in the God who comforts.
What should you do when injustice seems to prevail? Rejoice in the God who comforts! Verses 16 to 19 beckon us:
Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?
If the LORD had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.
When no one else stands by you, God does. When no one else can help you, God will. When you can’t see where you can put your foot without slipping and falling, God will steady your steps and keep you upright.
There are only two reasons why someone would default on a promise: inability or unfaithfulness. There isn’t a hint of either in God. So rest in his promises.
Verse 19 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” There’s realism and hope. Grief and comfort. Sorrow and joy. God doesn’t just soothe our pain; he turns our mourning into rejoicing. Only the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can do that. Only the God who overcame sin and death in the cross of Christ can do that. Only the God who has defeated death by raising his Son from the dead can take our cares and change them into cheerful consolation and comfort.
If that seems impossible to you right now, then pray this verse back to God until you experience its truth in your own soul.
5. Remember the end of oppression.
Remember the end of oppression. Verses 20 to 23 hold up this end for us to see:
Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
those who frame injustice by statute?
They band together against the life of the righteous
and condemn the innocent to death.
But the LORD has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.
He will bring back on them their iniquity
and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the LORD our God will wipe them out.
Verse 23 proclaims the end of oppression—the kind of oppression we see in verses 20 and 21. And I mean end in two senses. First, oppression has an expiration date. At the final judgment, God will end injustice forever. No injustice will survive that day.
Second, verse 23 reminds us of the final outcome of oppression, the final destiny of those who oppress others. God will return their evil on their own heads. God’s promise to punish sinners eternally in hell is sobering and shaking. But it’s also a comfort to the oppressed.
Verse 20 identifies wicked rulers as “those who frame injustice by statute.” In our nation, unjust statutes of the past—whether slavery itself or Jim Crow laws or government-authorized discriminatory housing policies—have left pervasive legacies of generational poverty. Some people who lived under Jim Crow laws, and some who enforced Jim Crow laws, are still alive. Or consider just one example of discriminatory housing policies. As recently as the 1950s, the federal government subsidized the construction of subdivisions on the condition, imposed by the FHA or the VA, that the homes could not be sold to African Americans. What difference might it make to you, today, whether your parents or grandparents were or were not legally able to purchase a home in a safe and stable neighborhood?
God always keeps his promises. Has America consistently kept ours?
God always keeps his promises. Has our nation always kept ours?
What can wicked rulers expect from God, those who frame injustice by statute? Not God’s allegiance, but his implacable opposition. Remember the end of oppression.
Preserving Unity Amid Division
I am well aware that some readers will disagree with some of the premises in my analysis of racial injustice in our nation. If you disagree with some of what I’ve said, I hope you’ll permit me to offer one more challenge: Have you worked to understand and sympathize with the experiences of black church members and other black Americans? Have you labored to discern the differences between the world you live in and the world they live in?
Regardless of your opinions, convictions, or analysis of current events and their causes, how are you working both to understand and to unite with those whose experiences and convictions differ from yours? Have you worked to understand why those who have different convictions have those convictions? For instance, have you ever asked a mixed-race married couple in the church about whether they have been the targets of racism? If not, why not? There can be good reasons not to broach a subject like that, but indifference isn’t one of them.
And brothers and sisters, what are you reading? What work can you do on your own so that you don’t need to ask a black friend to do it for you?
Regardless of your opinions, convictions, or analysis of current events and their causes, how are you working both to understand and to unite with those whose experiences and convictions differ from yours?
There are two basic ways we can try to preserve unity in the face of divisive issues. We can rule certain conversations off-limits, or we can lower the stakes. By “lower the stakes” I mean acting, speaking, and listening in such a way that it’s clear to the person you’re with that your love for them is strong enough to weather disagreement. How can you lower the stakes? As James 1:19 says, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Whatever your experience of racial injustice has been, whatever your explanation of it, how can you work to lower the stakes in discussing it, so that more and more of us can bear more and more of each other’s burdens?