Recently after a lecture, I was confronted by an angry man who accused me of being soft on God’s judgment and justice. Though angry, he was a good man, someone who had given his life in duty to family, church, country, and God.
“I cannot accept what you say,” he muttered bitterly. “There’s so much evil in the world and so many people are suffering from other peoples’ sins that there must be retribution, some justice. Don’t tell me that the people who are doing these things – from molesting children to ignoring all morality – are going to be in heaven when we get there! What would that say about God’s justice?”
I don’t deny the existence of hell, nor of the importance of God’s judgment, but the itch to see other people suffer retribution reveals, I believe, things about ourselves that we might not want to admit.
But at least we’re in good company: The prophet Isaiah was no different. For him it was not enough that the Messiah should usher in heaven for good people. Along with rewards for the good, he felt, there needed to be too a “day of vengeance” on the bad. (Is. 61, 2). Interestingly, in a curious omission, when Jesus quotes this text to define his own ministry, he leaves out the part about vengeance. (Luke 4, 18).
Too many of us today, conservatives and liberals alike, have a need to see punishment befall the wicked. It is not enough that eventually the good should have its day that we should be rewarded. No, the bad must also be punished. Liberals and conservatives might disagree on what constitutes sin and wickedness, but they tend to agree that it must be punished
To my mind, this desire for justice (as we call it) is not always healthy and, in a way, speaks volumes about a certain frustration and bitterness within our own lives. All that worry that somebody might be getting away with something and all that anxiety that God might not be an exacting judge, suggest that we, like the older brother of the prodigal son, might be doing a lot of things right, but are missing something important inside of ourselves. We are dutiful and moral, but bitter underneath and are unable to enter the circle of celebration and the dance. Everything about us is right, except for the lack of real warmth in our hearts.
Julian of Norwich once described God this way: “Completely relaxed and courteous, he himself was the happiness and peace of his dear friends, his beautiful face radiating measureless love like a marvelous symphony.”
That is one of the better descriptions of God written, but it can make for a painful meditation: Too often, for too many of us, far from basking in gratitude in the beautiful symphony of relaxed, measureless love, and infinite forgiveness that make up heaven, we feel instead the bitterness, self-pity, anger, and incapacity to let go and dance that was felt by the older brother of the prodigal son. We are inside the banquet room, amongst all the radiance and joy, but we are unhappy, pouting, waiting for the Father to come and try to coax us beyond our sense of having been cheated. Such is too often the feeling among us, good people: Like the older brother of the prodigal son, we protest our right to despair, to be unhappy, and demand that a reckoning justice one day give us our due by punishing the bad.
Alice Miller, the famous Swiss psychologist, suggests that the primary spiritual task of the second half of life is dealing with this. We need to grieve, she says, or the bitterness and anger that come from our wounds, disappointments, bad choices, and broken dreams will overwhelm us with the sense of life’s unfairness. Her formula for health is simple: Life is unfair. Don’t try to protect yourself from its hurts – You’ve already been hurt! Accept that, grieve it, and move on to rejoin the dance.
In the end, it’s mostly because we are wounded and bitter that we worry about God’s justice, that it might be too lenient, that the bad will not be fully punished. But we should worry less about that and more about our own incapacity to forgive, to let go of our hurts, to take delight in life, to give others the gaze of admiration, to celebrate, and to join in the dance. To be fit for heaven we must let go of bitterness.
Like the older brother, our problem is ultimately not the undeserved and excessive love that is seemingly shown to someone else. Our problem is more that we have never really heard in our hearts the gentle words that the Father spoke to the older brother: “My child, you have always been with me and all I have is yours, but we, you and I, need to be happy and dance because your younger brother was dead and has come back to life!”