Dangerous Virtues: Justice-Life in an Age of Outrage

A saying attributed to St. Augustine goes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” No one seems to know where or even whether Augustine actually expressed such a thought. To be honest, it sounds more like something a modern would say. The view of the ancients was much less approving of anger than in our day. The ancient attitude was more like the one expressed by the fourth-century monk who warned: “If when you want to reprove someone you are stirred to anger, you are pandering to your own passion. Lose not yourself to save another.”

The old monk’s restraint seems peculiar to modern ears. Everybody gets angry. We’re pretty sure that some people deserve our anger. Besides, anger is just an emotion, an expression of our righteous indignation. When it is rightly employed, anger can be the fuel that energizes change. At least, that’s how we see it. Perhaps we are right in thinking this. As the words attributed to St. Augustine suggest, maybe anger really is the offspring of hope. Could anger be a fire kindled in the soul by a vision of a different world? We have removed anger from the list of deadly sins, given it a new name, and declared it to be a virtue. We call it justice.

The rhetoric of justice has become commonplace in our day, both inside and outside the church. But a common definition of what we mean by the term is hard to find. For some people, justice means racial reconciliation. For others it speaks of economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth. Those who serve meals in the homeless shelter, others who work with victims of human trafficking, and people who disrupt traffic on the expressway to protest police shootings all believe they are working for justice. Often, what we call a hunger for justice, is really only anger.

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler available from Moody Publishers.
John Koessler’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available from Moody Publishers!

Justice is a biblical virtue and a foundational requirement of law. The standard of biblical justice is righteousness, a measure that is established by God. The boundaries of what constitutes just behavior are not subject to the whims of the majority. In Scripture, righteousness is a matter for conformity, not consent. Today’s justice warriors often seem to have a very different view. We live in a vigilante culture where those who don’t like the outcome of due process take matters into their own hands. This view essentially equates justice with bullying. This is true whether it is a virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or a literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose to intimidate.

But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus to find that there really is such a thing as virtuous anger. Jesus’ anger is an extension of the ultimate expression of virtuous anger: the wrath of God. Both testaments speak of God’s anger. Divine wrath is a measure of the distance that sin has introduced into our relationship with God. We know what it is like to be the focus of someone’s displeasure and to experience rejection. The Bible’s language of divine wrath is intended to remind us of what it is like to be in an oppositional relationship with God.The emphasis is not on God’s emotional state so much as it is on our position. Sin makes us God’s enemies. He is opposed to us because we are opposed to Him. Unrighteousness always places us at cross purposes with God so that we cannot be in harmony with Him.

As Christians, we are comfortable with the notion of grace. It is a part of our vocabulary. The nomenclature of grace is embedded in the songs we sing. But while we sing about grace, what we desire is many cases is retaliation. We are like Prince Felix, foreign minister of Austria, who was discussing what should be done with the captured rebels after the Hungarian revolt was suppressed in 1849. When someone suggested that it would be wise to show mercy toward the rebels, Schwarzenberg agreed. “Yes, indeed, a good idea,” he said, “but first, we will have a little hanging.”

A desire for justice is legitimate, as are many of the concerns of those who call for it. Unfortunately, what we call justice can also be nothing more than sentimentality expressed in the form of anger. This sentimentalized quest for justice trades on impatience. It misrepresents evil, by oversimplifying its nature. We are willing to shout, carry a sign, or post to social media. But that’s about as far as our plan of action goes. Anger is our only real contribution to the cause.

On the other hand, Micah 6:8 shows us what true justice looks like in practice: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” To act justly is to do the right thing. For the Jew, this meant conformity to the standards of God’s law. For Israel’s rulers, it involved the application of the law’s provisions and demands across all sectors of society. But the obligation to act justly was not exclusive to those who governed. In Micah’s prophecy, examples of unjust behavior include many drawn from daily life. They weren’t limited to the sins of rulers or even the rich. They involved sins of the marketplace and the family as well as the ruling powers (Micah 6:10–11; 7:5–8). Justice is the burden of the state, but it is also the obligation of the individual. Justice is a concern that stretches from the boardroom to the bedroom.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

The greatest obstacle facing us in our quest for justice is the fact that we are, by nature, fundamentally unjust. When the New Testament speaks of righteousness, it speaks of the righteousness that comes to us from God as a gift through person and work of Jesus Christ. God, who has established righteousness as His standard, is also the only source of the righteousness He requires. By sending Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice of atonement, God was able to maintain His standard of righteousness while providing righteousness to those who had none of their own. God is the only one who has a right to feel righteous indignation. He keeps the accounts and He alone can execute ultimate justice. The day of vengeance belongs to the Lord (Isa. 34:8; 61:2). But God is also the only one who can satisfy His wrath. He is the Just One and the one who justifies because the only righteousness God will accept is His own.

To “do justice” in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism. It means that we will reflect Christ’s righteousness in our ordinary lives by the power of Christ. Doing justice is not a matter of living up to God’s standard but one of living out that standard through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To act justly in this Christian sense also means to act out of mercy. This includes specific acts of mercy, but it also involves more. The command of Micah 6:8 is to “love” mercy. The Lord calls for more than a practice of almsgiving. To love mercy is to cultivate a merciful disposition.

To ‘do justice’ in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism.

Not long after I started driving, I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries, and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty. I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case. “How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute,” I replied. The judge looked around the courtroom. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge inquired. He was not. “Case dismissed,” the judge curtly declared. The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy, but it was not. The judge dismissed my case on a technicality. He could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me.

Mercy is something else. Mercy belongs only to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict. It is a person. Because Jesus took our place, God’s verdict of righteous for the believer is no mere legal fiction. When the Bible calls us righteous, it means what it says. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand what it means to be just in the biblical sense of the word. Justice is not outrage. Neither is it revenge. Justice is righteousness, which is first received as a gift and then displayed as a testimony to God’s grace. It is the habit of walking with an awareness of God’s goodness, knowing that He has shown us mercy and empowered us to do the right thing. Justice is an act of faith that trusts God to look out for our interests. Justice is the offspring of hope that has two beautiful daughters. Their names are grace and truth: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Love

The first of the seven deadly sins is lust. For most of us, this word is associated with sexual sin. But the Bible employs the term more broadly. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated lust is often one that simply means desire. In addition to illicit sexual desire, it can refer to both ordinate and inordinate desire. Lust is as liable to take the form of an illicit desire for someone else’s things or their success as it is an inappropriate desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “ For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust everything in the world is a potential target.

The opposite of lust is love. But the terms themselves may not be of much help in distinguishing between the two. We often use “love” to refer to a multitude of desires and affections, some high and some low. A couple on a date might declare undying love for one another during dinner and then in the next breath say that they “love” the food that is on their plates. Neither thinks of the second of these as genuine love, at least not in the biblical sense.  Afterwards, they might decide to “make love,” using the same term in a third sense that is really more in line with what the Bible actually means by lust. Not every desire we experience is necessarily lust nor does every affection that we call love qualify as love in the biblical sense.

You would think that sin and love would be incompatible. After all, if the heart of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Yet this assertion seems to imply something in addition to this. Namely, that sin has its own version of love.

Sin shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is actually a distortion of love which, once it has achieved its full effect, proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. It is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. Yet for some reason, we return repeatedly to this false lover and expect a different result.

In the Old Testament, David was criticized for preferring his unfaithful and rebellious son to those faithful men who had risked their lives for him. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” David’s commander Joab complained (2 Sam. 19:6). Similarly, when Jehu the Seer went out to meet Jehoshaphat after the king’s ill-advised alliance with Ahab, the prophet warned, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is upon you.” A similar charge might be laid at our own feet in this present age. We claim love as our cardinal virtue. But a closer inspection all too quickly reveals that what we are really celebrating is an infatuation with ourselves.

The alternative to lust is love. It is a love that comes to us, like the righteousness of Christ, from the outside. Adopting the same language Martin Luther coined to speak of that righteousness, we might call it “alien love.” Because it is not our own it is the only love powerful enough to wean us away from ourselves.