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before the judge

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Judgment. The word sends a shiver through most people's souls, even those who proclaim to have salvation through Jesus Christ. I suppose this is because most of us immediately place ourselves in the position of the accused. To many of us, God as a Judge is not a reassuring thought. And that is strange, if you stop to think about it, because in the scriptures, the Righteous Judge is often portrayed as a very comforting figure.

C.S. Lewis suggests that in the Bible we find basically two views of judgment: what he calls the Jewish view and the Christian view.[1] The Jewish view is that of a civil case where I see myself in the position of plaintiff, a person unjustly wronged (stolen from, taken advantage of, etc.). The cry is for justice. In contrast, the Christian view of judgment is that of a criminal case in which I am the accused, on trial for the wrongs I have done against God. In this case, the plea is for mercy. When we are the plaintiff, we want to get before the judge, we want our case to be heard (not always so easy in previous centuries where you needed money or influence to get a hearing). When we are the defendant, we would rather avoid appearing before the judge. It will, in all likelihood, end badly for us.

A brief look at the Psalms shows both views. In Psalm 9 we have the writer in the position of the plaintiff: "Eternal One, arise! Do not allow mere mortals to win the day. Judge the nations Yourself. Put the fear of God in them, Eternal One. Remind the nations they are mere men, not gods." The Psalmist, viewing himself as the innocent party, understandably wants the worst sort of punishment enacted on those who have done him wrong: "For you supported my just cause. From your throne, You have judged wisely. You confronted the nations; You have destroyed the wicked. You have erased their names from history." In our day and age, we might demand the maximum sentence, perhaps even the death penalty, or in the case of punitive damages, want to "sue them into the stone age," as one person so eloquently put it. Basically, the plaintiff views justice as equal to the ruin of the wrongdoer.

In Psalm 50 however, we see the writer in the position of the accused. God is the plaintiff: "Who do you think you are? Listing off My laws, acting as if your life is in alignment with My ways? For it's clear that you despise My guidance; you throw My wise words over your shoulder. You play with thieves, spend your time with adulterers. Evil runs out of your mouth; your tongue is wrapped in deceit. ... While you did these things I kept silent; somehow you got the idea that I was like you. But now My silence ends, and I am going to indict you. I'll state the charge against you clearly, face-to-face." The Psalm ends with a sentencing of sorts, a directive from the Judge. "Set out a sacrifice I can accept: your thankfulness. Do this, and you will honor Me. Those who straighten up their lives will know the saving grace of God."

The Psalmist who was so sure of his righteous position must not be divorced from the Psalmist who stands accused before God. When hurt, we want to hurt back. But when we have done the hurting, we want leniency. So how can we reconcile these two? In Psalm 51, we find a penitent man, asking not only for forgiveness but transformation. Here is a man keenly aware that his reckless actions have caused pain and harm to many: "Look on me with a heart of mercy, O God, according to Your great compassion, wipe out every consequence of my shameful crimes. Thoroughly wash me, inside and out, of all my crooked deeds. Cleanse me from my sins." Instead of asking the Righteous Judge to wipe out his enemies (like we found in Psalm 9), the Psalmist asks God to wipe out the consequences, the terrible price paid by others (as well as himself) because of his crimes. The desire for justice is turned inward instead of outward as the Psalmist continues: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; restore within me a sense of being brand new. Do not throw me far away from Your presence, and do not remove Your Holy Spirit from me. Give back to me the deep delight of being saved by You; let Your willing Spirit sustain me."

The truth is, we are both plaintiff and accused. We sit on both sides of the court. There are claims against us and we have claims against others. We have had wrong done to us and we have wronged others. We are not blameless nor are we without hurt. But we are not the Righteous Judge. We can demand the destruction of our enemies like the Psalmist, but it is not ours to enforce. We can plead for mercy and forgiveness, but it is not ours to demand.

So what can we do with our pain and with our guilt? Author Anne Rice writes: "I myself am haunted by destructive things that were said to me when I was a child, and over the course of my adult life. I can think of something said to me when I was ten years old and feel exquisite pain remembering how humiliated or hurt I felt. What that means to me, however, is not only that I must forgive each and every instance in which such things happened, but that I must admit that my own words and actions may still be hurting people who can remember them from numberless incidents... All that gossip, all that criticism, all that spitefulness, all that meanness, all that verbal sparring, all that anger - all that failure to love." [2]

Rice echoes the prayer in Psalm 51 as she continues: "Think what a beautiful thing it would be if I could take back every unkind word I ever spoke, or every unkind deed I ever did, either deliberately, or accidentally - if I could take back every moment of pain I ever caused another human being. How can I do this? Only in surrendering this knowledge, this admission, to the mercy of Christ."

Amen, sister. We cry for justice for the oppressed and wronged. We cry for mercy for the wrongdoers. We are both. This is why we find comfort in God, the Righteous Judge.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. Glasgow: Collins, 1981.
[2] Anne Rice. Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2008, p. 233.

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