Understanding VS. Justification | November 2012 Article
An hour ago his son’s questions had challenged Solomon, and the king had tried his best to offer words of wisdom and explanation to help his son understand a life situation. Now he was trying to capture the heart of that bedtime conversation in a few pithy statements to add to his book of proverbs he was writing for his son. Perhaps this entry would be one of the most helpful proverbs yet. The right words wouldn’t come to mind, so he set his quill down beside the parchment he was writing on and thought back to the conversation.
Ten-year-old Rehoboam’s favorite privilege as the king’s son was to sit in court and observe the judge hearing cases and rendering judgment, and it was in court earlier that day that Rehoboam, a bright lad, became puzzled by what he saw transpire. Some thieves had been tried in court and some differences occurred in how the situations played out. The boy was struggling to understand what he had seen, and the moment Solomon came in to say “good night” the boy surprised him with a passion-filled outburst.
“It just doesn’t make sense, Dad! The judge’s face and even his tone seemed full of compassion, but he still made him pay. It just didn’t seem fair! If I had been the judge, I would have….”
“Slow down, Son!” Solomon said, seating himself on the boy’s bed and smiling. “Sounds like you’ve been in court again and are judging the judges. Why don’t you tell me what you saw and let’s see if we can sort this out?”
Taking a deep breath, Rehoboam continued at full speed.
“Several thieves were brought to the judge today and they were so defiant. They walked in with shackles around their ankles and stared right at the judge with cold eyes. When the judge asked them why they stole, they started hollering about how unfair society was to them and how they had been mistreated. They sounded mad because they didn’t have as much as everyone else. A different group of people showed up for each prisoner and they shouted insults at the judge when he was ready to announce the sentence. I think they were the people the criminal had stolen from. He would just sneer at them, as if they were the guilty ones for having stuff he wanted.”
Rehoboam paused to take a breath, which allowed Solomon to get in a few words.
“I guess I don’t understand your confusion, Son. You’ve seen that lots of times.”
“Sure, Dad, but it was the last one of the day that I can’t figure out. The last thief came in with shackles, as well, but he looked at the floor the whole time and seemed ashamed to look up at anyone. The judge made him lift his head and I’m pretty sure I saw a tear forming in the corner of his eye. This thief was about to make me cry. When the judge asked him why he stole, the first thing he said was, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so very sorry,’ and I could tell the judge was convinced that he meant every word.”
Rehoboam slowed down as compassion welled up inside him.
“There was still a group of people, probably the ones he stole from, but they weren’t shouting. Most of them had their heads down, too. After the man explained how his family hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, he told the judge he knew he had done wrong and that he was willing to take whatever punishment came his way. I watched the victims walk away one by one. It was so sad, Father.”
“I’m not sure what you don’t understand about that, Son.”
Rehoboam’s eyes narrowed as his voice began at a very determined yet empathetic pitch.
“I just can’t believe what happened next. The judge seemed like he was about to cry one moment but then issued a sentence against the man. Dad, the judge declared him guilty, then ordered him to pay back even more than he stole! Didn’t he see the man was repentant? How can he be about to cry one minute, then declare such a sentence on him the next? This just doesn’t seem right!”
The struggle his son was battling started making sense to Solomon.
“See, Son, the judge and the victims had pity on the man because he stole out of hunger. He wasn’t being greedy or trying to take more than he needed. He just wanted food for his family.”
“I understand that, Dad, but why did he give him such a hard punishment? Couldn’t he have let him go? It was obvious that he knew he was wrong and was sorry he did it!”
Solomon did his best to explain the balance that a judge needs in dealing with issues such as this; and now, as he sat recalling the conversation, he wondered if his son might still be lying there awake, battling over the differences. Certainly, it was a tough issue, and a clarifying proverb might serve to help his son and a thousand other fathers and their children. He picked up his quill, dipped it into the inkwell, and began to write on the clean parchment…
Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; But if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.
Little did Solomon know how that one short proverb (Proverbs 6:30-31) drawing a line between understanding and justification could help check the spirit of conservatives in the 21st Century.
Verse 30 explains “understanding” —although it is true that this man stole, people did not despise him. They actually understood because his reason was hunger. They sympathized rather than despised him. The verse implies that being understanding is fully acceptable.
Verse 31 then draws a contrast by dealing with “justification”—the fact that the man stole means that he will still have to pay for his crime. Laws that govern what he did cannot be negated by either sympathy or understanding.
The core of this truth promotes embracing understanding, without embracing justification. This is an important distinction for those who stand on the absolute truth of God’s Word. This principle allows us to stand strong on our biblical positions (no justification), while displaying a spirit that is patient and kind (understanding).
We must remind ourselves that it is acceptable to be understanding of people caught up in sinful living. It is easy to despise people for the messes they get themselves into, but we should also see that there are a variety of reasons they are in those situations. Certainly all of us sin because of a nature in rebellion against God, but all motives are not created equal. One illustration of this comes from a lesson I had to learn as a father. Not every act of disobedience from my children was from outright rebellion. Although they disobeyed, there were times it was more from natural immaturity or ignorance due to my own lack of training. While I still dealt with disobedience, I learned to treat it with a different attitude and more understanding.
We must admit that the messed-up lives people live today are not just a result of rebellion. Our society once displayed the influence of ever-present biblical truth from almost all sectors. Now, we are suffering an epidemic of secular humanism and the slightest hint of divine truth is being rooted out at an alarming rate and with an unholy passion. We now have a generation of people who are less likely to ever see a life rightly lived. Yes, they have some basic truth written on their consciences, but they don’t have the added benefit of seeing it personified as many of us did growing up. Once we see their plight, it should help us be more understanding of where they’ve come from and supply us with the patience and kindness to lead them to the grace of God.
The other side of this truth is that understanding should not turn into justification. God has declared things wrong that we are not big enough to veto, and violating His truth comes with irrevocable consequences. We betray the Word of God when we begin to justify that which He has spoken against. Our society does not need help from Christians when it comes to justification. We have a culture that is currently on a justification tantrum, declaring that very little is actually wrong or evil anymore.
If embracing understanding without embracing justification is the biblical path, there are certainly ditches on both sides of that path. The first ditch involves those who draw no line between the two and actually embrace both understanding and justification. We could call them liberals. Although this applies politically, my application is actually pointed to local churches. Many churches see the struggle of living godly lives in this present world and become so understanding of the difficulty that they no longer declare the standard with authority. Their sympathy eliminates many a standard of holy living. Sometimes preachers slip into justification because they are guilty of a sin themselves. Once they have fallen they understand the challenge more than ever, and they might end up justifying behavior in others because they understand the struggle so clearly. It also happens when a pastor preaches a standard for years, but begins to change once his own children don’t keep that same standard. Before long the standard changes and his understanding leads to justification. If it is not his children, it might be a precious church member whom he loves so dearly that he cannot bring himself to deal with the person and ends up justifying that which should have been handled.
The ditch on the other side of the path could be called the Pharisee. While the liberal embraces both understanding and justification, the Pharisee embraces neither. This is where conservatism loses some of its luster and attraction. This Christian (as pastor, parent, friend, etc.) would never justify the things the liberal has embraced. The problem is that he won’t even be understanding with someone else who might. There are struggles that he’s never had to battle, so he has no patience with others who do contend with them. Many couples without children are frustrated with those whose kids might be unruly. While they shouldn’t be asked to justify, their temperament could stand a dose of understanding. Young zealous preachers wanting to sound like a “real preacher” end up doing more harm than good, not because they refuse to justify, but because they lack understanding of the challenges facing those in the pew. One of the saddest observations is when the Pharisee, who embraces neither understanding nor justification, discovers how cruel that position is and ends up in the other ditch with the liberal, embracing both understanding and justification. While he eventually blames those mean conservatives, he is actually the mean one, and now becomes one of the liberals he used to curse under his breath.
America badly needs to see a movement that knows how to draw a line between understanding and justification. How refreshing to encounter people who stand firm on the biblical truth they have always believed, even when it is unpopular, yet do so with a heart of understanding, gentleness, and patience. I am convinced that a biblical dose of understanding will actually lead to less compromise in the end. When a thief steals because he is hungry, go ahead and be understanding and show compassion. Just don’t let your understanding cross the line into justification.