When to Be Merciful and When to Demand Justice

Meditation on 2 Thessalonians 3:8-15

[We did not] eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. . . .14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

Paul cuts the nerve of the unmerciful and the unjust. Some people lean so hard on justice they have no place for mercy. Some do the opposite: mercy minimizes justice. What is so striking in this passage is that Paul models mercy and exhorts justice. One key to the Christian life is the spiritual wisdom to know when and how to apply both.

Consider Paul's example of mercy in verses 8 and 9: "We [did not] eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate." Here Paul is modeling mercy: He gives up his "right" to be supported. Mercy is giving more than he's required to, and demanding less than he has a right to. So Paul is not pursuing justice for himself. He is modeling mercy - not insisting on his rights.

The reason he is doing this is "to give you in ourselves an example to imitate" (v. 9). Therefore, he considers mercy something that others ought to follow as well. The specific behavior he wants them to copy is "toil and labor." There were people unwilling to work who were mooching off others. Paul was giving them an example: work! But don't miss that Paul's way of modeling work was to forego his rights and act mercifully.

Nevertheless, what he exhorts is justice (vv. 10, 14-15): "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. . . . If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him." In other words, there are situations when demanding that one act justly (earn your bread, don't mooch) is preferred to mercy which would say: you may have bread even though you have not worked for it.

So here we have the apostolic example of mercyto be imitated, and the apostolic exhortation of justice to be obeyed. Is there consistency here? Yes. Both are forms of love that desire the good of the church. Paul's act of mercy and Paul's call for justice aim at the good of the people. On the one hand, Paul surrenders his rights and helps the church see that their treasure and their final justice are in heaven, not on earth. But on the other hand, Paul forbids a brother to exploit this mercy, and sends the people back to the principles of justice: no work, no food.

But notice the loving aim of the justice: ". . . that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother" (vv. 14-15). It is a loving thing to waken shame in people committing shameful behavior. And it is shameful for a person created in the image of God to be unwilling to work. Work is a God-appointed means of reflecting God's glory by depending on him for the strength and wisdom to perform the excellence that imitates God's workmanship. It is shameful for a human to be unclothed with the reflected glory of God - good workmanship.

I suggest three criteria for when to follow mercy or justice: 1) Know your personality and resist excesses that accord with your bent (lenient or demanding); 2) The more personal and private the offense, the more mercy to show; the more communal and public the offense, the more justice to require; 3) Be sure in either case that your motive is love for the most people involved, including the offender.

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