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When Justice and Mercy Meet

Compassion is a dangerous thing. It can open a person to all manner of risks. It causes reasonable people to make extravagant heart-decisions, from spending untold hours collecting supplies to assist flood victims, to journeying into harm’s way to feed starving refugees. Some have even left successful careers devoting themselves to a cause that gripped their hearts.

Compassion is a powerful force, a stamp of the Divine nature within our spirits. It lies within us all—from tender child to hardest criminal—waiting for the right trigger to set it off: a bird with a broken wing, a lonely widow whose family and friends have moved on, a child orphaned by a terrorist car bomb.

For me it was fatherless boys growing up on city streets with little chance of escaping the deadly undertow. So strong was that force within me that it caused me to leave a budding business career, depart secure surroundings, and move with my family into the inner-city.

Compassion beckons us into unexplored territory. Often it ushers us into a world of pressing human need—the destitute needing food and clothes, the homeless needing shelter, the refugee needing a connected friend. My focus became attention-starved boys. I forged friendships with them through all sorts of “testosterone-charged” activities: mini-biking, spelunking, deep sea fishing—enticing rewards for good grades and staying out of trouble. Friendship with them was the medium for showing them they were valued and loved by a God who care-fully created them.

Building relationships with street kids seemed so right, yielded so many positive changes, until young boys became young men and faced survival on their own. The need for immediate cash took precedence over school attendance. Basketball and outdoor adventure trips did little to enhance their earning capacity. Bible studies did not get them jobs. I watched helplessly as one by one my young friends were pulled under by the survival ethic of the street. Mercy ministry alone, as some call it, is insufficient.

Mercy is a force that compels us to acts of compassion. But in time mercy will collide with an ominous, opposing force. Injustice. Against this dark and overpowering force, acts of mercy can seem meager. What good is a sandwich and a cup of soup when a severe addiction has control of a man’s life? Or a night in a shelter for a young woman who must sell her body to feed her child?

Perhaps that is why the Bible places equal emphasis on both mercy and justice. The ancient prophet Micah succinctly summarizes God’s design: “He has told you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord desires of you—that you love mercy and do justice and walk humbly with your God.”

Love mercy. Mercy is “compassion, kindness or forgiveness shown especially to someone a person has power over.”

Do justice. Justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.”

Twinned together these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy grows cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs.

Mercy combined with justice creates:

• immediate care with a future plan
•emergency relief and responsible development
• short-term intervention and long-term involvement
•heart responses and engaged minds

Mercy is a door, an opening, an invitation to touch a life, to make a difference. But it is not a destination. Those of us who get stuck in mercy ministry find ourselves growing impatient with the recipients of our kindness, wondering why they don’t help themselves more, feeling a growing discomfort with the half-truths they tell to justify their persistent returns. Mercy that doesn’t move intentionally in the direction of development (justice) will end up doing more harm than good—to both giver and recipient.

Mercy is a door. It is a portal through which we glimpse the heart of God. The tug on our heartstrings draws us in. But soon we encounter brokenness so overwhelming that neither tender heart nor inventive problem-solver feel up to the task. Our solutions fall short. Pathologies are too deep, poverty too entrenched. And we descend into our own poverty, a poverty of spirit, a crisis of confidence in our own abilities to rescue. And, like the broken, we find ourselves calling out to God for answers. When our best efforts have failed us, we are left with nothing to cling to but frail faith.

In a strange twist of divine irony, those who would extend mercy discover that they themselves are in need of mercy. Out of our own need we are readied for service that is both humble and wise.

Excerpted from TOXIC CHARITY by Robert D. Lupton. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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