Our Gentle and Terrifying God

How Justice Holds Out Mercy

Sinners rescued from the road to hell love to rehearse and celebrate the mercy of God. Where would we be today without mercy? Where would we be for eternity without mercy?

Without mercy, we would be dead in our sin, a death worse than death. Mercy called us from the tomb. Mercy lifted us out of the pit. Mercy opened our blind eyes. Mercy gifted us with faith, repentance, and joy. We deserved every possible ounce of rejection, punishment, wrath, but God gave forgiveness, love, and life instead. All that we have, we have by the mercy of God. Is there any other god, in all the religious imaginations on earth, who deals so gently and compassionately with sinners?

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Knowing how we’ve treated him, all the endless ways we’ve each ignored and insulted him, he has every righteous reason to be severe and merciless, but he’s gentle with us. He stoops low to receive and restore us. Jesus recites these precious lines from Isaiah about himself: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Who could know himself a redeemed sinner and not love the kindness and tenderness of such mercy?

And yet mercy doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s another side of this king — a holy, majestic, jealous, even vengeful side, a side sinners like you and me are often far less likely to rehearse and celebrate.

Bruised on the Battlefield

When Jesus drew near to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, he did not coddle or compromise with sin. His mercy mingled with justice:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
     my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
     and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. . . .
a bruised reed he will not break,
     and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
     until he brings justice to victory. (Matthew 12:18–20)

He came to establish justice, and he wouldn’t stop until he saw it to the finish. We might imagine these bruised and vulnerable reeds hiding safely in backyards and community gardens, but here they’re crouching on the battlefield of a cursed world.

Why else is the reed bruised and the wick smoldering, if not because they’re caught in the awful, ordinary crossfire of sin? We all relate to that thin, fragile blade of grass because we’ve felt like that at times, if not often. We’ve all felt the sting of sins against us, and we’ve all watched, with sorrow-filled anger, as sin has torn apart marriages, families, friendships, communities, even whole nations. With our hearts aching with confusion and grief, we’ve cried out for justice. We’ve groaned, with creation, for a better world than the one we have.

Until Justice Is Done

Jesus came to bring that better world, to pour out justice like Niagara in spring, to declare war on all who opposed him, to put a certain end to centuries of rebellion. And yet, as he wages his holy war, he kneels down, with infinite strength, taking fire from every direction, to lift and support the weak, humble, trusting souls in his path. Toward his enemies, he’s severe, unyielding, terrifying. Toward his own, however, he’s gentle and lowly.

On that battlefield, his justice is not some dark cloud casting a shadow over his mercy; it’s the sunless, moonless night which makes his mercy shine. His justice and mercy are two parts in one holy symphony. Isaiah 30:18, for instance, plays the harmonies, mingling the tenderness of God’s mercy with the promise of his justice:

The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

Mercy and justice are not at odds here, but beautifully joined together. Because he is just, God will be merciful to you, in his perfect timing. His grace to you, in Christ, is justice. The purest enforcement of justice ever conceived or executed delights to show mercy.

God of Against

This mercy does not blunt the force of his justice. The justice of God is a soul-shaking, pride-shattering justice. Right before Isaiah 30:18, the Lord confronts Israel for desperately turning to the armies of Egypt for rescue:

Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern. (Isaiah 30:12–14)

Notice, the mercy of God doesn’t keep him from severity. Is the God you worship one who ever smashes rebellion against him? When you close your eyes to pray, is there ever a sense that he could, right now, righteously decimate billions of people for refusing and insulting him — that sin really is that repulsive and insidious? Some regular awareness of his holy furor against injustice, especially all our injustices against him, is vital to a healthy life of worship. The God of all comfort, after all, is also a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low. . . . And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. (Isaiah 2:12, 19)

“The God who stoops, in Christ, to gently lift you out of your sin will one day terrify the nations again.”

This is not a cruel God left behind in the Old Testament. This is the God of infinite mercy. The God who stoops, in Christ, to gently lift you out of your sin will one day terrify the nations again. His justice may be hidden, for a time, beneath his staggering patience, but its devouring fire will soon consume his enemies.

Justice Fueling Mercy

All of that makes his mercy all the more stunning. The terrifying flames of justice don’t undermine his mercy, but illuminate and enflame it. “The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice.” But they were despising his word and trusting in oppression and perverseness — how could he be both just and gracious to them? How could he bless the ones who cursed and despised him?

By becoming the curse they deserved. Revel, again, in the familiar and shocking story of how justice and mercy meet:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23–26)

“The wooden beams outside Jerusalem frame the wondrous marriage between justice and mercy.”

The wooden beams outside Jerusalem frame the wondrous marriage between justice and mercy. Through the cross, God is both just and justifier, both just and merciful. On that dark and bloody hill, the terrifying justice of God became a servant of mercy for all who would believe. In Christ, justice is no longer a threat, but a refuge. All the sovereign power that would have ruined us now promises to protect us. “‘In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you,’” Isaiah 54:8 says, “‘but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer.”

How could we feel the full weight of his mercy toward us if we tend to ignore or marginalize the fury of his justice?

Justice and Mercy for Me?

We know all of this about our God, and yet some reading this still struggle to believe that God will be so merciful. The guilt and shame they carry make everyday life feel heavy. They hate their sin, and have made efforts to be done with it, but are back on their knees, again and again, bearing the same painfully familiar confessions. The mercy they thought they’d found feels further and further from reality. Could God really forgive and love someone like me?

Others reading this, however, struggle to believe justice really will be done. Some days, it feels like their whole lives have been one long heart-rending headline. They watch the godless enjoy comfort, success, and prosperity, while they suffer for their faithfulness. They cling to the promise that everything will eventually be made right, but they search the corners and crevices of their lives in vain for evidence it might be so. And if they muster the courage to raise their eyes above their own plight, they see many more suffering in horrible, unjust ways. Could God possibly make anything good of all this pain and injustice?

We struggle to embrace the justice of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins against us. We struggle to embrace the mercy of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins done by us. To both groups, the bloody cross and the empty tomb stubbornly say, he can, he has, and he will. He will surely bring justice to completion. No stone in your life will go unturned. Every sin against you will be brought into the light and made right. Justice himself will call wickedness to account until he finds none (Psalm 10:15).

And in the meantime, he will not break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoldering wick. His mercy is as wide and deep as you are sinful. Our God is far more just than we realize, and far more merciful than we can now imagine.