There is a story in Scripture that moves me to tears no matter how many times I hear it or read it. In John 8:2-11, we read about a woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus’ feet for judgement. Her accusers wanted her stoned to death, as the justice of the law required. Instead, she was rescued and transformed by a display of grace that epitomizes what Jesus came to do through His kingdom.
There is no question that what the woman did was wrong (the nowhere-to-be-seen man involved was wrong too, for that matter, but that’s a topic for another day!). And it would have been considered justice for Jesus to uphold the law of the day and condemn her. But He didn’t.
Instead, Jesus profoundly demonstrated that His definition of justice is birthed from a heart of compassion that looks toward redemption. If Jesus had looked at the woman and only seen someone sinful and deserving of punishment, He would have written her off right along with everyone else. But that is not what He saw, and it is not what He sees when He looks at you or me or any other human being—even the ones we would dismiss as hopeless.
Paul writes that Jesus came to reconcile all things to Himself (see Col. 1:19-22). He does not want us to be far from His heart or to be in any kind of bondage; He wants us to be fully connected and alive in Him. It is from this motivation that He administers justice.
In God’s character, justice, righteousness and mercy are inseparable, cemented together by the essence of His nature—unfailing love. This is vividly portrayed throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books and in Psalms.
Because of His perfect love, He is moved with mercy, He wants us to be in right relationship with Him and with others, and He wants us to live in a way that carries out His justice. (See A Framework for Understanding Justice.)
God’s justice is not punitive—punishment and consequences are not the end goal. Redemption is what He has in mind, and mercy and compassion make this result possible.
A Priority for Reformers
The connection between compassion and justice is especially important for us to grasp if we truly want to see reformation—if we want to disciple our nations and establish godly systems and social structures.
The connection between compassion and justice is especially important for us to grasp if we truly want to see reformation.
For example, in our attempts to help the poor, it is not enough to merely feed people, (although that is an important start). But there are systemic problems and corruption that contribute to keeping people in poverty or making it very difficult to move beyond it. True justice moves beyond addressing the symptoms on the surface to find and pull up the roots in order to give people hope.
In a similar vein, a lack of compassionate perspective is evident in the chaos and brokenness of our current criminal justice system in the United States. It is a system built around punitive justice, not redemptive justice. As a result, countless individuals are robbed of the opportunity to truly learn from their mistakes and build a better life. For many, the imprisonment continues long after they have served their time, as they cannot find jobs, homes, etc.
To examine another popular issue right now, racial reconciliation can only happen effectively through a process of compassion and justice. Compassion recognizes the problem, but justice involves objectively facing and dealing with our own hearts, as well as the systems, attitudes, customs, power dynamics, and other elements that allow racism to persist.
You cannot have true justice without compassion.
You cannot have true justice without compassion. Compassion softens hearts so we recognize the need for justice; it moves us to care when we might otherwise be indifferent. Furthermore, it ensures that justice is carried out in a way that prioritizes righteousness—right relationships with God and fellow human beings.
Perhaps you and I can’t take on all the broken systems of the world today, but we can start wherever we are. As we make decisions, build community, and engage with our families, let’s ask God to help our lives flow from deep wells of righteousness, justice, and compassion. As this becomes woven into who we are, He will open bigger doors and places of influence to us to become His partners in redemption.