The word judgment has negative connotations in today’s conversation. To say of a group that “they are so judgmental” is essentially to say they are unapproachable and unattractive because they judge others to be less than themselves. But if you substitute some of the other possible ways to translate the Hebrew word mishpat, you might say that “they are so just” or “they respond so appropriately, so rightly.” It’s clear that the idea behind mishpat is one we are actually attracted to—the ideas of justice, equity, even-handedness, fairness. It comforts us to be able to say with the psalmist, “Righteous are You, O LORD, and upright are Your judgments” (Psalm 119:137). This can be paraphrased to show the emphasis and insistence of the psalmist: “Just are you, O LORD, and just is your justice.” The word “upright” places in mind an absolute vertical line between heaven and earth. This stands and stands firmly. We need this to be so.
We notice particularly when we are treated unjustly. “How many are the days of Your servant? When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?” (Ps. 119:84). “I have done judgment and righteousness: do not leave me to my oppressors” (Ps. 119:121). We all feel it keenly when someone harasses us, hems us in, dogs us, exploits us, violates us. Like this psalmist, we appropriately take these acts of enmity against us to God. “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense” (Deut. 32:35) and “Say to those who are fearful-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).
I confess that this is often where I have to start when I feel wronged. I start by praying for justice: “The Lord watch between us while we are estranged, while we are enemies.” Keep an eye on that person, God, and bring your justice to sort things out between us. After a time of praying this way, I often find that God shows me how I too have been unfair, have done wrong in the relationship. God does indeed sort things out fairly. And in the word “recompense” (shillem) is not just the idea of “paying someone back,” as we so often want to do or want God to do, but the idea of removing the injury, making peace, making good, making whole (shalam).
This hidden peace-making is emphasized overtly in Jesus’s words, “But I say to you, love your haters, wish good to those who wish you harm, act honorably to those who detest you, and pray for those who insult, abuse, and threaten you and drive you away, that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). After I have prayed for justice for awhile, I come to recognize that I actually want my innocence vindicated, more than I wish harm to the other person. The words of Jesus help prevent me from escalating the conflict. Paul gives very similar advice: “Repay no one evil for evil, injury for injury. Wherever people look, let them see you care for the honorable, the excellent, the good, the honest. If you are strong, make and keep peace with all. … Do not be conquered by evil, by what is wrong, but conquer evil with good, with what is right” (Romans 12:17-21).
“My soul breaks with longing for Your judgments at all times” (Ps. 119:20), writes this psalmist. “My entire being breaks into pieces, is crushed with longing for Your justice now and always.” And yet, to be fair, it is not always comforting to realize God is just. The psalmist wrote, “My flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Ps. 119:120). “My body shivers, my hair stands on end from terror and dread; I respect and fear your justice.” I remember learning from Rebecca Manley Pippert (Out of the Salt Shaker…) about “the myth of innocence” we carry as regards ourselves. The unbelieving shrug, palms up, of the athlete who has just been whistled for a foul is a tiny example of our inability to see clearly how we have done harm or how we have omitted doing good. It is a heavy burden to continually have to protect our image and prove our innocence; if we can lay it down and let God sort things out, we will find freedom in God’s justice.
As we pray for justice, we will soon learn to add these prayers as well: “Look upon me, and be merciful to me, as Your judgment is toward those who love Your name…Hear my voice according to Your lovingkindness: O LORD, revive me according to Your judgment…Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD: revive me according to Your judgments (Ps. 119:132, 149, 156). “I love you, God, the One who is; be merciful, be gracious, be just to me. Hear me because you are good, kind, and faithful; sustain my life with your justice. You cherish me, you love me tenderly; your justice keeps me alive.”
George MacDonald said that God’s mercy and God’s justice are two ways we see the same attribute of God. He said that God will make every excuse for us that can be made, and that God will also treat us as responsible where we are responsible. God is glad to see the muddy child run into God’s arms, and God will lovingly and tenderly scoop the child up, disregarding the dirt, and equally lovingly and tenderly wash the child clean.
As we pray for God’s justice, as we pray for God’s mercy, as we do what Jesus tells us and what Paul reinforces, we will become more just and more merciful. People will not see us as judgmental, but as fair and kind. “Make my whole self fully alive and whole, and I will flash forth light; your justice surrounds and helps me” (Ps. 119:175). “Let your light shine out where others can see your good, beautiful, honorable, excellent works and celebrate the shining splendor and majesty of your Father who surrounds you and encompasses the universe” (Matthew 5:16).