Reconciling Justice

“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”

My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.

Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.

Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73:4-12

Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.

Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?

We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.

How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22

But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.

We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.statue of justice

Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Psalm 73:18-20

Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26

Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.

Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Psalm 73:27-28

The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.

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When There are No Words

Words escape me just now.

I have spent the past few weeks immersed in the life stories of my Ugandan students, listening, reading, and responding to their experiences of pain and trauma, survival and redemption. Even as I walk through my routine of homeschooling and hospitality back home in Scotland, the echoes of their ongoing stories continue to reverberate through my soul.

They have survived genocide and rape, bullying and witchcraft. Some have witnessed their parents butchered, their siblings shot, their husbands poisoned to death. Others carry the scars of intense hunger and severe beatings, crippling poverty and abusive families, obstructed justice and oppressive social systems.

Despite attacks from every angle, these valiant men and women have carried on working, ministering, leading, and serving. On the surface they are strong and capable, but just beneath their wounds lie festering and vulnerable. Their safety and survival have depended on the ability to stow away their painful baggage. But I have assigned them to pull it all out and put it into words.

Words offer a healing release, except for when they won’t come.

Sometimes prayer is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

Some traumas run too deep to put into words. Some experiences are too painfully fresh to be able to stand back and formulate into rational sequences of sound. They can only be relived in images and sensations, imaginations and dreams.

And so they remain locked inside the soul, expressing their presence through irrational behaviors and unexplainable tears. Left alone they slowly suck life out of the spirit, leaving little behind but the empty shell of a once vibrant person.

I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his mouth; I have become like a man who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply. I wait for you, O LORD; you will answer, O Lord my God.
Psalm 38:13-15

I have been there myself, walking around in my shell of a body, mechanically interacting with the people and events around me while feeling spiritually and emotionally trapped within invisible walls. Comforting comments bounced. Listening ears walked away empty. Without words to bridge the gap between my inner experience and my outer reality, I carried on a lonely, dual life, one of external performance and internal anguish.

I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart. All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.
Psalm 38:8-9

But the beautiful thing about God is that He is not limited to words. His Spirit passes through the walls of language and location and time. He is able to enter the world of our memories and emotions and commune with us there, too. He sees the images that haunt us. He hears the silent screams that reverberate through our souls. And He knows the longings that we haven’t figured out how to express.

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:23

Prayer doesn’t have to involve carefully crafted words or even coherent sentences. Sometimes it is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Romans 8:26-27

And yet prayer is also the outlet for our pain, the bridge that once again connects us to Someone outside of ourselves. It is us laying bare our broken, messy selves before God’s holy, penetrating gaze, knowing that our only hope lies in communion with Him.

jesus-weeping-277x300

Even apart from words, we can invite God’s Spirit to come into our most privately held grief and pray the right words for us. Sometimes even His intercessions go too deep to be able to express with words. He cries along with us, compassionately expressing our pain with groans of His own.

That is where I find myself now, groaning along with the Spirit on behalf of my students. Some things I have words for, specific prayers on their behalf and written replies to their assignments. But for the most part I agonize in God’s presence over all they have endured, longing for the redemption of their pain.

Thankfully, God doesn’t need my words.

Opening the Door

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I awoke the other night to a loud, insistent pounding on the door. My initial reaction was to remain securely bundled in the safety of my bed, counting the number of locks on the doors and bars on the windows between me and whoever was out there in the African night.

But they wouldn’t quit. More knocks on the door. More calls through the window for someone to please come and answer. A pang of conscience drifted through my sleep-muddled mind, reminding me that I had arrived at the university guesthouse under similar conditions only a few nights before. Perhaps this was another travel-weary guest, arriving in the middle of the night after countless hours on sleep-depriving airplane seats and bone-jolting potholed roads. Then again, perhaps it was a band of ruthless marauders come to attack and plunder us unsuspecting foreigners as we slept in our beds.

We make a choice whether to protect our own interests or to risk them for the sake of another.

As I lay under my mosquito netting trying to collect my thoughts, the pounding continued. Were there no staff people here to go and sort it out? I realized we were on our own. I had to make a choice whether to protect my own interests or to risk them for the sake of another.

Flipping on the lights, I shuffled across the gritty cement floor, unlocking barrier after barrier of protection as I approached the front door. I peered through the glass, unable to make out the figures that went with the voices calling to me from the blackness of the outside night. They were trying to explain who they were and why they had come, but I could barely hear them through the glass. Did I really want to expose myself to these strangers?

Call it an act of sacrificial love or of supreme stupidity, but I did it. With a quick prayer for protection and a fuzzy-headed analysis of the potential consequences, I stuck my key in the door and turned the lock. Little did I know that I was opening the door for the answer to one of my forgotten prayers.

Out of the darkness stepped a man, his countenance matching the night but his eyes radiating the dawn. His cheeks bore matching sets of scars, which he later explained to me as tribal markings that his parents had cut into his face as a baby to protect him from being mistakenly murdered during the tribal wars into which he had been born. But his purple shirt, white clerical collar, and chain with suspended cross told the story of another birth into a different tribe.

Love for Christ compels us to get up and open the door.

The next day I had the opportunity to pour him a cup of Ugandan coffee and find out more about my Nigerian brother. Born into a Muslim family, he had been among the first in his region to attend school, newly introduced by Christians from abroad. Along with a modern education he had also received knowledge of Christ, to which he responded in faith. Despite opposition from his family, he had persisted in his faith, pursued a life of ministry, and eventually risen to the position of bishop over the churches in the central region of his country.

I listened to this man’s story of life and faith with tears in my eyes, remembering the prayers that I have so fervently offered up to God on behalf of His people in Nigeria. How many times have I have wrestled with God in prayer, wondering why He allows evil, militant groups like ISIS and Boko Haram to overtake a country and torture its struggling Christian population? How often have news reports from around the world caused me to question Jesus’ claim that He will establish His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it?

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:16-19

And yet here sat this man, a living testimony that God is at work in these places, that the light of His presence has been anything but extinguished there. Yes, the persecution has been severe. Yes, many have lost their homes, their jobs, their families, and even their lives. And some have renounced their faith.

But as my brother testified, the church in Nigeria is being refined by Boko Haram’s fire. Its light is shining all the brighter as a result of persecution. Those who have remained are marked by a willingness to endure all things for the sake of Christ and to reach out in sacrificial love to meet the needs of one another in the Body. In fact, he had only been able to set out on this trans-African pilgrimage to bring his son for higher education in Uganda because of the many unexpected gifts his fellow Nigerian believers had showered on him.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…
I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:34-35, 40

I sit back in humbled amazement, privileged to get to witness God’s work in the world. I suppose that, like with the inconvenient, intimidating knocks on the guesthouse door, we have a choice of how far we will go in opening ourselves to what is going on in the world. We could simply shut out the media-amplified cries of people we don’t know, choosing instead to roll over and pull a pillow over our heads.

But love for Christ compels us to get up and open the door. They may be strangers to us, but they are intimately known by Him. We risk our own sense of security and safety by allowing in the painful awareness of all that His children are suffering for His name’s sake. But in exchange, we gain the joy of participating with Him in bringing about the most improbable of our prayers.

“Your kingdom come.“