The Mercy and Justice of God
A People of Transformed Character
This post is the third part of our four-part Epiphany Sermon Series. Over the past two weeks, we have considered St. Paul’s exhortations to the Christian Church in Rome regarding the character qualities that should mark the Christian community. This is a community of people of transformed character, very attractive to the world, but not without enemies.
So, what are the distinguishing marks of the body of Christ? To summarize St. Paul’s thought up to this point in the text:
The new community of followers of Jesus Christ are a people who are sincere; avoiding evil while clinging to what is good; devoted to one another in love; honoring one another above the self; keeping their spiritual fervor while serving the Lord’s purposes; joyful; patient; faithful; generous in helping others; practicing hospitality; blessing those who intend them harm; matching the highs and lows of fellow believers by identifying with the joys and sorrows of this life; living in harmony with one another; and willing to associate with people from all walks of life.
God’s Mercy and Justice
St. Paul now turns his attention outward toward a surrounding world that is often hostile to the community of believers in Jesus Christ. Events over the past couple of days provide a near perfect example of the animosity shown toward Christians who choose to remain faithful to their convictions over the forceful dictates of a secular culture.
Ivan Provorov is a 26 year-old Russian playing for the Philadelphia Flyers in the National Hockey League. On a recent game night, Provorov declined to participate in a pre-game warm up during which Flyers players donned jerseys featuring the rainbow colors synonymous with the Gay Pride Movement. When asked by journalists about his reason for refusing to participate in the pre-planned activities of Pride Night, Provorov simply said, “To stay true to myself and my religion. I respect everyone. I respect everyone’s choices” (Fox News, Joe Morgan, January 21, 2023).
While the cultural response over the days following the event was mixed, those who objected to Provorov’s settled response to an event violating his conscience was swift and nasty. One hockey commentator suggested Provorov was free to get on a plane and go back to Russia where he might feel more comfortable.
Tal Fortgang, an American Orthodox Jew writing an editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted the significance of the event in prompting his public defense a Russian Orthodox Christian: “Pride Night is part of the National Hockey League’s ‘Hockey Is for Everyone’ campaign. The NHL is engaged in race-, gender- and sexuality-based outreach in seemingly unassailable terms: All are welcome. But as religious Americans are aware, this seldom is the meaning. A message of ostensible tolerance—be whoever you want to be and live your truth—is hardly the gentle embrace of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Instead, it is quiet coercion: Bake the cake. Wear the jersey. Bend the knee” (The Wall Street Journal, Opinion, January 20, 2023).
By refusing to participate in Pride Night, Provorov quietly refused to bend his knee to the soft-totalitarianism present in American society today. Now, as Christians, we await Provolov’s next move as he responds to his detractors. St. Paul’s counsel to the early Roman church will be of help to Provorov, and to us, as the saint’s exhortation offers a road map for followers of Christ who find themselves staring into the teeth of a society growling at the nonviolent resistance to its dictates and cultural expectations.
St. Paul offers three (3) prohibitions for the community of those who are “in Christ” as they face threats from the world beyond the walls of the Church.
The first is this: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (vv. 12:17-18).
Secondly, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath…” (vs. 12:19). And finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vs. 12:21). Do not repay evil for evil; do not take revenge; and do not be overcome by evil. No small task for those in the way of an aggressive adversary.
Each prohibition by St. Paul calls for an appropriate response from those in Christ versus a spontaneous reaction more reflective of the motives and attitudes of the world. To be sure, “responding” and “reacting” are two very different things.
A response to an external threat takes into consideration the long-term desired outcome of an interaction. It is a settled response based on the core values of a person to an external event or circumstance. Again, Ivan Provorov’s thoughtful actions in the face of a provocative event offer a solid and inspiring example of a settled response.
A reaction is more immediate and tends to take place in the moment, without any sustained thought to the long-term consequences of the action. The outcome of reactions tends to be negative, typically comprising the body of work we might call mistakes in our closest relationships with others. Husbands and wives usually apologize to and ask for forgiveness from each other after an over-reaction, rather than a settled, thoughtful response. I think this is due to the nature of a reaction as a “fight or flight” response.
A study conducted in 1998 may give us some helpful insight into understanding the dynamics behind our ability to respond or react to various events. The Implicit Association Test (“IAT”) is an instrument that measures the milliseconds it takes to connect pairs of ideas. The IAT is based on the concept that a person will be faster in putting together ideas they already associate with one another versus those they do not.
For example, if a person were to associate “female” with “family” and “male” with “career,” they would be faster in putting the nouns female/family and male/career together. Conversely, if the columns are put together as male/family and female/career, and these are not the associations of one’s unconscious mind, it will take extra milliseconds to sort out the nouns properly.
This helps us get at the reason why people respond versus react to external events. In my own life, I have noticed a propensity to react to external threats when I don’t have a clear sense of the threat I’m facing or the appropriate response to a veiled threat. In my better moments, when I have a clear sense of the threat I’m facing and my personal convictions related to the threat, I am much more likely to respond in a positive manner.
For those with a biblically informed worldview, where forgiveness/peace or revenge/God’s wrath are paired together, a settled response to external threats is more likely than a damaging reaction. Returning to verse 12:2 in Romans, St. Paul offers the solution to our predicaments: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As the saying goes: Where the mind goes, the feet will eventually follow.
The contents of our core belief system, what we believe to be true about the world, will largely determine our ability to respond versus react to the presence of evil in our lives. Again, I can think of an example from my own experience.
After living in the Northeast and Midwestern United States for a decade, our family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Our family purchased a house under construction in a new development south of the city. During our ten (10) years away from the southern United States, I didn’t see a snake one time. Not even a hint of a snake. Now, on our first night in our new home, I confronted a deep-seated, uninformed fear. I don’t like snakes. I am afraid of them. Really afraid of them.
As I went to turn to on the water spigot to water our lawn, I stepped right beside a large snake coiled up within the center of the hose laying on the dry, dusty ground. My reaction was swift and severe. Not being in Texas, where the general motto is, “If you see a snake, kill it,” I did what most rational people would do: I ran.
After recollecting myself, I realized a bit of research would do me good. My core belief system as it relates to snakes needed an upgrade. So, I educated myself by studying the markings of venomous versus non-venomous snakes in the Southeastern United States. I still don’t like snakes, but I no longer fear all snakes as I did before my unpleasant encounter with a garter snake. Next time around, this time in the Mississippi Delta, my response to a large snake was more settled than reactive. I still ran like crazy, but at least this time I knew a copperhead can really hurt you.
The Basis of Our Response to the World Around Us
Two dominant themes are at play in each of the prohibitions offered by St. Paul to the new society of Jesus known as the Church. The first is this: God is merciful. We see this biblical reality reflected throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments.
According to Jesus, the reason we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is that “(God) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God is a merciful God.
Likewise, the Psalmist assures us that “(God) does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Rather, God shows mercy due to the greatness of his steadfast love towards those who fear him (vs. 11).
Thus, St. Paul exhorts the body of Christ to, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We are able to show mercy because of the great mercy we have been shown in Christ. Indeed, when those in Christ show mercy to others, we are reflecting to the world around us something of what God is like.
The second dominant theme in Romans 12 is God’s justice. God is more than merciful; he is just. “Do not take revenge, my friends,” writes St. Paul, “but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). I believe this attribute of God is the key to our ability to respond to evil in our lives versus reacting. If God has promised to right the wrongs done to us, whether perceived or real, we are relieved from the urge to punish those who punish us, or curse those who curse us. God is merciful and God is just. Revenge and repayment belong to our Sovereign God.
The Bible teaches that no wrong in the universe will go unpunished. The wrath of God will repay every wrong either through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ for those who repent, or in hell for those who don’t. While this is an uncomfortable idea in the modern world, the biblical reality is plainly stated throughout Holy Scripture and serves as the basis for believers in Christ Jesus to return good for evil and blessing for a curse. As pastor John Piper wisely stated, “We display his mercy and defer to his justice.”
While these biblical realities bring comfort to the heart and mind, sometimes our practical realities challenge our attitudes in the face of difficult circumstances. Over the course of my working career, I have faced occasions where personality differences or varying perspectives at the office have been brought home with a sense of frustration and even discouragement. I suspect you have as well.
On one occasion, as I was working through my feelings of frustration, my wife wisely offered me a piece of advice that forever changed my perspective: “God saw that.” This simple phrase helped transform my perspective. Right, I feel misrepresented and even unjustly treated, but God saw whatever is that’s got me worked up. God saw that. This counsel helped me channel my frustrations into their proper place in God’s providence. God is merciful and God is just. In the end, all will be well.
Behind these exhortations from St. Paul, we also hear the clarion call of Jesus Christ: “But I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:27-31).
St. Peter is helpful here as well as he provides the basis for another motive for obeying the commands of Jesus: “Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Bless those who curse you that you may inherent a blessing. Beautiful.
A Settled Resistance to External Threats
In 1951, a young physician named Silvester Krčméry (pronounced kirch-MERRY) served as a leader in the underground church in totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Krčméry’s quiet influence and settled resistance to the atrocities of the communist regime led to his arrest. For the next 13 years, Krčméry was interrogated relentlessly and subjected to all manner of beatings, torture and humiliation.
In his memoir entitled, This Saved Us, Krčméry recalls the moment when he realized the only way through the ordeal was to “rely entirely on faith, not reason.” He says he decided to be “like Peter, to close my eyes and throw myself into the sea.”
“In my case,” says Krčméry, “it truly was to plunge into physical and spiritual uncertainty, an abyss, where only faith in God could guarantee safety. Material things which mankind regarded as certainties were fleeting and illusory, while faith, which the world considered to be ephemeral, was the most reliable and the most powerful of foundations. The more I depended on faith, the stronger I became” (Live Not by Lies, by Rod Dreher, p. 153)
For years prior to his arrest, Krčméry had memorized texts from the New Testament to bolster his core belief system with the sacred texts of the Bible. Memorizing these messages of truth, life and hope proved to be an excellent way to maintain his spiritual and emotional well-being in prison. Krčméry had also memorized the Catholic mass which added structure to his long days in solitary confinement.
With a solid theological base in place, firmly fixed in his core belief system, Krčméry spent long hours interceding for specific people and groups of people, including his captors. “Bless those who curse you,” said Jesus, “pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28).
It is difficult to comprehend the steadfastness and patient endurance of Silvester Krčméry in the face of such a sustained, seemingly hopeless existence in prison. Clearly, Krčméry knew in his heart God was both merciful and just. God would avenge. God would repay.
Upon his release from prison in 1964, Krčméry spent the next twenty five years continuing his work for the anti-communist resistance. He was a principal organizer of the 1988 Candle Demonstration in Bratislava, the first mass protest in Czechoslovakia in two decades. This peaceful protest served as a catalyst to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that restored freedom and democracy to what is now known as the Czech Republic. Over time, the settled response of returning Good for Evil brought about freedom and peace in a very dark corner of eastern Europe.
As 21st Century American Christians, we can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters in Christ who have endured periods of freedom, followed by persecution and threats to our religious liberties.
The Road Ahead
In the face of increasing intolerance of our Christian convictions, once held as an inalienable right in the United States of America, the Christian Church faces a societal challenge few of us would have anticipated even as little as ten or fifteen years ago. The overt reactions of our society to the resistance of one Russian Orthodox Christian hockey player to the quiet coercion of the Pride Movement gives us information about the road ahead.
We are a nation divided, increasingly a people who seem to be drawn to darkness and destruction over the light and life offered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we are called to live as people of transformed character, shaped by God’s Word, transformed by participation in the Divine liturgy and at work through intercessory prayer for those who love us and for those who persecute us.
By living this way, the path modeled for us by men like Silvester Krčméry, we too can put the world on notice that, by God’s grace, we will refuse to repay evil with more evil, but will repay evil with good. For as followers of Jesus Christ, our quiet confidence and our willingness to resistance the coercion of an emboldened secular society is rooted in our belief that God is perfectly merciful and God is perfectly just.