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In my mother’s antique shop were a variety of treasures for a curious child. My personal favorite was the Victrola that sat stately in the corner, a large internal phonograph that begged to be heard. The sounds it made were bold and cavernous, like an opera in a wooden box. This one was an early model, I heard adults say, and it was in mint condition. So it seemed peculiar to me that our frequent requests to put it into action were, from time to time, resisted. To me it was a perfect treasure, a magnificent and flawless toy. To the motherly owner of the store, it was a treasure that was capable of breaking before it sold. “As is” was not a phrase she wanted to add to the price tag.
A label that was seen occasionally within the shop, “as is” conveyed an item with damage or brokenness of some sort. “As is” marked the clock that had stopped ticking, or the rocking horse that had a crack in one of its legs. Because I knew my mother as one who could fix almost anything, the label also conveyed to me a certain sense of defeat. Whatever the item, it was a lost cause—a treasure bearing some distinguishable, irreparable flaw.
In different ways and in varying degrees throughout our lives, many of us feel something like the object marked “as is,” or the treasure with only a matter of time before something goes awry. With a sense of defeat, we view our lives through the lens of what is broken or has been broken, what is irreparable or what might break. Looking ahead, we see the broken down trailer behind us, which seems to declare emphatically our status “as is.”
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This well-known quote from the 1st Baron Acton, or Lord Acton, was not a new insight when he penned those words in a letter to a colleague in the late 19th Century. In fact, other figures throughout history have identified the corrupting influence of power. The French republican poet and politician, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine who witnessed the uprising of the French people against the ruling monarchy wrote:
“It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free… the master himself did not gain less in every point of view… for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”(1)
Perhaps he had in mind the ironic result of the French Revolution which replaced the Monarchy with an Emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Sadly, it does seem that power and corruption walk hand in hand. The news media around the world document scandal and abuse by the powerful with the oppression of the weak and the vulnerable a daily reality. Perhaps more tragic is the reality that there are those who hold sacred power, religious leaders of all faiths, who use the authority entrusted to them for malicious and evil purposes. While clergy sexual abuse scandals continue to emerge, stories of “spiritual abuse” and “authoritarian” leadership abound in houses of worship of every denomination and creed.
How do you know that God exists? How do you know that God loves you? How do you know God is present versus absent? These questions, upon the hearts of so many, have answers as real as the formative moments in your life.
As I have aged I seem to grow more and more prone to nostalgia. Many of us do this instinctively, clinging to memories past, perhaps looking backwards with the hope of seeing a purpose for our lives. When I travel to India, I make it a point to revisit time and again those significant marking points of my own life. As I recall these moments past but not forgotten, I hear the gentle voice of the God very much in the present. And God says: I was there. When on you were on your bike contemplating suicide, I was there. When you were but nine years old and your grandmother died, I arranged for her gravestone to hold in time the very verse that would lead you to conversion. I was there.
It is often in these harrowing moments—your parents’ divorce, your child’s birth, the death of a loved one—where God leaves a defining mark. There is reason you remember such moments so vividly. We have a choice to hear or to ignore, but regardless his voice cries out in our memories, I was there. God has been in our past. God is here today. God will be there in our future. We have this promise in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
He seemed to brace himself for what had become the typical barrage of questioning after stating his occupation. The once unrecognized field of “forensic science” now comes attached with visions of beautiful men and women swabbing for DNA, replicating gunfire trajectories, decoding cyber movement, and piecing together the truth with hair, bugs, and CODIS. The tremendous popularity of forensic dramas has made crime scene investigating a household subject. So with a real forensic scientist standing in front of me, I admit it was hard to repress my enthusiasm. Predictably, I asked if he watched any of the shows. Humoring my line of questioning for the moment, he admitted that he did not.
The vast public intrigue with forensic science has been increasing as feverously as the viewerships of crime scene television. In Great Britain alone, the increase in students applying for forensic programs is up nearly 33 percent, attributed entirely to the influence of CSI, NCIS, Bones, and many similar programs.(1) They come into their programs believing they already know a great deal about the job because they have seen it all performed. In a more damaging vein, criminologists note the pervasive misinformation that is powerfully influencing criminal justice systems in various ways, particularly and significantly in the minds and expectations of jurors.(2)
Analysts refer to this global phenomenon of forensic pop culture and its consequences as the “CSI Effect,” though speculation on the reasons for our feverish embrace of the motif is wider ranging. In my own right, I find something compellingly clean in the uncomplicated movement from mystery and crisis through clues and evidence to truth. In less than an hour, viewers are taken from dark riddle to conclusive resolution. Truth and justice emerge plainly, even where deception, obscurity, and injustice once reigned. In the rare instance when the suspect does not personally own up to the crime after the facts have emerged, the science and its expert witnesses are so definitive that it hardly matters. The truth is clear.
I wrote one of the last sections of the book Why Suffering? on a plane flight from London to New York.(1) As I came through security at Heathrow Airport, I had about an hour until my departure, and I had it in mind to find a quiet spot and make a start on the writing I had planned.
As I began to walk toward the departure gates, a small sign for the “Multi-Faith Prayer Room” caught my eye, and instantaneously—though I have never before had an urge to visit an airport prayer room—I felt this conviction that there was someone in that room whom I was supposed to talk with. It was as if someone had just told me, “There is someone waiting to speak with you there,” even though I had not audibly heard those words.
I did an about-face and walked a good distance away from my departure gate to the arrivals terminal where the prayer room was located. When I walked in, there was one man in the room, sitting in a corner on the floor. He appeared to be about my age. When he saw me looking around the prayer room, he asked, “Are you religious?” We began speaking about what it means to be religious, and he soon shared with me that he was going through the worst suffering of his life.
The 1748 essay “Of Miracles” by David Hume was influential in leading the charge against the miraculous, thoughts that were later sharpened (though also later recanted) by Antony Flew. Insisting the laws of a natural world incompatible with the supernatural, the new atheists continue to weigh in on the subject today. With them, many Christian philosophers and scientists, who are less willing to define miracle as something that must break the laws of nature, join the conversation with an opposing gusto. Physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, for instance, suggests that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature but rather “exploration of a new regime of physical experience.”(1)
The possibility or impossibility of the miraculous fills books, debates, and lectures. What it does not fill is that moment when a person finds herself—rationally or otherwise—crying out for intervention, for help and assurance, indeed, for the miraculous. “For most of us” writes C.S. Lewis, “the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.”(2) To this I would simply add that often prayer is both: both the anguished cry of Gethsemane—”please, take this from me”—prayed at the foot of an impossible mountain.
Whether this moment comes beside a hospital bed, a dying marriage, a grave injustice, or debilitating national struggle, we seem almost naturally inclined in some way to cry out for an intervening factor, something or someone beyond the known laws of A + B that sit defiantly in front of us. For my own family, like many others, our moment came with cancer. But it was complicated by well-intentioned commands to believe without doubt that God was going to take it away. When death took it away instead, like many others in our situation, our faith in miracles—and the God who gives them—were equally defeated.
For many Jewish people living after the Holocaust, God’s absence is an ever-present reality. It is as tangible as the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and as haunting as the empty chair at a table once occupied with a loved one long-silenced by the gas chambers. In his tragic account of the horror and loss in the camps at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel intones the cries of many who likewise experienced God’s absence: “It is the end. God is no longer with us….I know that Man is too small, too humble, and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe? How can anyone believe in this merciful God?”(1)
This experience of absence, dramatic in its implications for the victims of the Holocaust, has repeated itself over and over again in the ravaged stories of those who struggle to hold on to faith, or those who have lost faith altogether in the face of personal holocaust. In a world where tragedy and suffering are daily realities seemingly unchecked by divine government, the absence of God seems a cruel abdication.
The words of Job, ancient in origin, speak of this same kind of experience:
Behold, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him;
He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.(2)
The telling and beholding of stories bears a certain responsibility. There is a temptation in narrating history, biographies, even autobiographies, to reduce the story to one theory or setting, to one secret or encounter that unlocks the mystery of a scene or life. We want to solve the puzzle that is Emily Dickinson, resolve the curiosities of Napoleon, and know the essential meaning behind our own winding roads. But while the mode of storytelling may require certain parameters, life is not usually so neatly containable.
The late Roger Lundin, himself a biographer, suggests the necessity of awe in any telling of human story—a task in which we are all, on some level, engaged. “To be able to recognize the competing claims and the intricate complexity of human motivation is a gift and a necessity for writing a good biography, just as it is a necessity for understanding fairly and creatively and justly another human life.”(1) The task of putting a life or lives into words is surely larger than we often admit. How will you come to describe a deceased loved one to children who have never met him? How will you come to articulate the lives of family members, historical figures, biblical characters, and neighbors? The charge is all around us, vying for a sense of awe, humility, grace.
I have always appreciated the terminology employed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he described life to his friend. He spoke in musical terms, and in so doing ushered in the idea that life cannot be reduced to a note or a monotone. One of the terms he employed, the cantus firmus, which means “fixed song,” is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. Though the song introduces twists in pitch and style, counterpoint and refrain, the cantus firmus is the enduring melody not always in the forefront, but always playing somewhere within the composition. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life was a great work of sounds and symphonic directions, and the cantus firmus was the essence, the soul of the concerto.
Winters, in the north-eastern part of India, especially Shillong where I live, can be bitingly cold, and more so when it rains. One year, the winter was particularly wet, and for weeks on end there seemed no respite from the cold. One gloomy day followed another with nothing to lighten the dismal scene of overcast skies and thick blankets of cloud stretched like a shroud from one end of the horizon to the other. Suffocated by the cheerless gloom that had pervaded my very heart and soul, small woes and anxieties that had seemed miniscule before, now seems threateningly gigantic. Funny how the weather can affect one’s mood! And just as I was beginning to feel that sunny days are but a distant memory, suddenly, the sun rose up one morning, bright and strong, shining in a blue cloudless sky. I was immediately reminded of a song in the Bible likening the sun to a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, rejoicing like a strong man to run its race.(1)
As I was reflecting on the sight, I noticed my neighbor’s door opened. Faithfully, as he had probably been doing every single day of his life, he turned his face to the sun and paid obeisance to it. With hands folded and eyes devoutly closed, he continued in this salutation of worship for a few minutes. As I sat there in the sun, enjoying the delicious warmth soaking into my body, I can understand exactly why people would want to worship it. There is something very nurturing, healing and life-giving about the sun’s warmth. No wonder that civilizations right from the Mayans and the ancient Egyptians to the Hindus of today, revered and worshipped it.
I confess that I am often overwhelmed by the cacophony of good and honest causes that call out in dire need for supporters. Because of donations made in lieu of flowers at many funerals, it sometimes seems I am on every list of every drive that comes to our area. Similar donations in the names of deceased friends and relatives who requested a particular charity or ministry be remembered also keep me well-informed of need. Long after the donation is processed, I remain on these lists. I am inundated by causes that legitimately cry out for help, calling me to see the world through the eyes of a child, a recovering drug addict, victims of sex-trafficking, cancer, and natural disaster. Whatever your belief-system or creed, the haunting crescendo of heartfelt cries is never easily met with a deaf ear. There is so much need. Even now our hearts break for Houston and the devastating floods evicting thousands from their homes.
“When the foundations are being destroyed,” cried the psalmist, “what can the righteous do?” When need is deep and poverty unplumbed, when hopelessness seems one long, uninterrupted lament—from screams of natural disaster and tears of economic disaster to the silenced cries of injustice across the world—what can I do? When the decision to support one cause is a decision against supporting another, when money can only go so far and can hardly touch the depths of the issues around us, we can become not only paralyzed to make the decision, but inclined to take a large step away from all of it. And I, for one, often euphemize my mental retreat to the one asking for support: “Not at this time,” “I will think about it,” or even worse, “Let me pray about it.” For behind my words is too often a manifestation of indifference. “Wait” almost always means “never.”
I have always been mesmerized by ballet dancers. I remember our family’s annual visit to McCormick Place in Chicago to see the Nutcracker. The fluid movement, the spinning on toes, arms floating around as if in flight, their movement told the story. The dancers made the most difficult technical movements seem natural and easy. I remember one friend speaking of the dancers’ expertise as being filled with grace. These artists had taken complicated and physically demanding choreography and infused it with simple elegance and refinement.
The concept of grace has a long history within the Christian tradition. In theological terms, grace is described as God’s unmerited favor toward human beings far beyond what we deserve—both in terms of our own failing, and in terms of the abundance of God’s blessing towards us. Grace is also understood as a way of life towards others. Since God gives grace freely, humans ought to extend grace towards one another. Like the experienced dancer, the grace extended toward others should be characterized with an elegance and refinement.
Easier said than done. For one like me, who is by nature clumsy and lacking in balance, extending grace to another can often feel like the most excruciating physical practice. What often results is not a refined and elegant performance, but the proverbial dancer with two left feet. So how does one, like the dancers in the Bolshoi Ballet, live in ways that are full of grace?
Despite our coping mechanisms of choice, fear and weariness are often common sentiments across much of the globe, laden with a sense of uncertainty. People deal en mass with losses of all kinds and the turbulent emotions that come with losing ground. For many in the affluent West who have lived with mindsets of comfort and feasts of resources, economic downturn is a sudden and disorienting shift. For others, hard times simply get much harder.
Writing in a century with its own fears and famines, Blaise Pascal took note of the human capacity for a dangerous kind of escapism when fears loom large and hope remains distant. He saw a general disassociation with the present, a perpetual anticipation of the future or recollection of the past, which kept life itself at bay. “So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours and do not think of the only one which belongs to us,” he wrote. “And so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us… So we never live, but we hope to live.”(1)
Of course, whether in times of scarcity or in times of plenty, the temptation to mentally dismiss ourselves from the present moment is quite real. It is always possible to live with eyes intent on something better in the future or with a nostalgic gaze on the past and all that once was. But in times of discomfort, crisis, or shortage, the choice to wander in times other than the present strikes us more as self-preservation or necessity than temptation, an essential coping mechanism in the midst of pain—and so we dismiss ourselves from the present all the more freely. Whether to daydream of better times or to look fearfully into the future, we leave the harrowing realities of the present to hope for something more, to escape from the weariness of now, to remember something better. But no matter our reason, when the future alone is our end and life is preoccupied with what once was or what might be, it is something less than living. It is to embrace despair.
An essay from G.K. Chesterton begins, “In all the current controversies, people begin at the wrong end as readily as at the right end; never stopping to consider which is really the end.”(1) In a world very impressed with our ability to create and acquire our own high-tech “carts,” putting the cart before the horse comes very naturally. Even very thoughtful people can fail to think through the point of all their thinking. Chesterton continues, “One very common form of the blunder is to make modern conditions an absolute end and then try to fit human necessities to that end, as if they were only a means. Thus people say, ‘Home life is not suited to the business life of today.’ Which is as if they said, ‘Heads are not suited to the sort of hats now in fashion.’”(2) His observations are akin to the experiment of the ancient King Solomon. Cutting a child in two to meet the demand of two mothers is hardly fixing what we might call the “Child Problem.”
The reverse of the end and the means is hardly a modern problem, though some argue the trend is increasing. As C.S. Lewis observed many years ago, logic seems to be no longer valued as a subject in schools or societies. Never having taken logic as a school subject, or even noticed its absence for that matter, I might agree the observation still rings with some truth. But any critique of illogic is perhaps startling when juxtaposed by how much we currently seem to value a constant surge of information. In the chorus of incessant infotainment, T.S. Eliot’s lament from “The Rock” seems almost a heretical voice:
The Apostle Peter must have felt a touch saintly when he approached Jesus asking, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Equally likely, given the manner in which he framed the question, Peter was anticipating a characteristically outlandish response from the Lord. But Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
This dominical injunction—to forgive seventy times seven—is usually taken to be a hyperbolic response, in effect meaning, as often as the offender repents, forgive without limit. Such interpretations are not incorrect. But when one traces the ‘echoes’ of Jesus’s words in the rest of Scripture, one finds that the command means more—much more.
The depth of these particular words by the Lord can be determined through, at least, three scriptural soundings. New Testament scholars have long since perceived that Jesus understood himself to be proclaiming the Jubilee Year, notably in the so-called “Nazareth Manifesto.”(2) The Jubilee was the “seven-times-seventh year” when the guilty, the debtors, the trapped, and the handicapped were set free. The Greek word for “deliverance,” “release,” or “liberty” is also the same word for “forgiveness.”(3)
The language that Jesus uses, both in the Manifesto and in his response to Peter’s question, to forgive “seventy times seven,” reveals how he understood forgiveness to be the central operative principle and practice of the Jubilee. Jesus is in effect saying that, with him, the Jubilee has come, and that his followers are to be a Jubilee-celebrating people, both receiving and giving the gracious and gratuitous gift of the Jubilee: namely, forgiveness.
Five year-old Samantha was the victim of a cruel and tragic murder, and her own tears were the evidence that sealed the case against her abductor. “[S]he solved the crime,” said her young mother. “She was her own hero.”(1) DNA in the form of teardrops was found on the passenger-side door of the killer’s car, irrevocably making their mark on the crime scene and everyone who imagines them.
It is impossible to hear stories like this, of heinous murders, of calculated school shootings, without retreating to the deepest whys and hows of life. The abrupt ending to these lives is another wretched symptom of a sick and desperate world. The problem of evil is a problem that confronts us, sometimes jarringly. The problem of pain is only intensified by the personal nature of our experience with it.
The first time I heard Samantha’s story my numbed mind was startled by this property of tears. I had no idea that our tears were so personally our own. Samantha’s tears solved the case because there were none others like hers. They were unique to the eyes they came from, intricately a part of Samantha herself. In the pains and joys that cause us to weep and to mourn, we leave marks far more intimate than I ever realized. We shed evidence of our own makeup, leaving behind a complex, yet humble message: I was here, and my pain was real. There are a lot of really bad and unhelpful things that people say in the face of tragedy and to those who mourn. For me this brings new meaning to the wisdom of being silent with the grief-striken, sharing tears instead of advice.
There is something deeply necessary in the Christian hope that pain will one day be removed and tears will be no more. We are rightly comforted by the hope of a God who will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the weeping and the promise that there will one day be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.(2) But perhaps there is something deeply necessary about a God who has marked our tears so specifically even now, declaring that our pain is far from a generic or empty occurrence.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to travel across the country from Massachusetts to Montana. While I had often traveled across the country on family vacations, I had never driven through South Dakota. But on this trip I was able to see quite a bit of the state that makes up part of the Great Plains in the United States. Having lived near the city, I remember being struck by the vast expanses of what appeared to be uninhabited land. Rolling grasslands, without many trees, offered a view of the landscape that was as far as it was wide. I remember wondering why anyone would make a home in such a desolate place.
Several years after this trip, I read Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota and marveled at her poignant description of this land. Her memoir both enticed me and made me wary of life in the Dakotas. The opening paragraphs of her book explain why:
“The high plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act like a crucible for those who inhabit them. Like Jacob’s angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it, before it bestows a blessing… This book is an invitation to a land of little rain and few trees, dry summer winds and harsh winters, a land rich in grass, and sky and surprises.”(1)
She concludes by saying that “the land and the sky of the West often fill what Thoreau termed our ‘need to witness our limits transgressed.’ Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.”(2)
Traveling through the fields of her own country in the midst of a great famine, a young woman named Ruth became a widow. Yet though her family would have been nearby to help, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to another land. And thus, to her already diminished role as widow, she added the disparaging status of “foreigner.”
I have not spent much of my life as a foreigner, though my short bouts with being a cultural outsider remind me of the difficulty and frustration of always feeling on the outside of the circle. Just as the distance between outside and inside seems to be closing, something happens or something is said and you are reminded again that you don’t really belong. It can be both humbling and humiliating to always carry with you the sober thought: I am out of place.
This story from the book of Ruth scarcely neglects an opportunity to point out this reality for Ruth. Long after hearers of the story are well acquainted with who Ruth is and where she is from, long after she is living in the land of Judah, she is still referred to as “Ruth the Moabite” or even merely “the Moabite woman.” Her perpetual status as an outsider brings to mind the vision of Keats, and the “song that found a path/ through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” She stood in strange and foreign fields and was forever being reminded that no, she was the stranger.
The earliest creeds of the Christian church confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” It is then confessed, “On the third day, he rose again.”(1) While modern presuppositions may tempt us to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus as symbolic or spiritual in nature, there was nothing abstract about the events and details confessed by those who first beheld them. Jesus’s suffering was an actual, datable event in history, his crucifixion a sentence inflicted on an actual body; the proclamation of both was the remembrance of a cold reality, something akin to remembering the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears. Likewise, “the third day” was a tangible, historical occasion—albeit an occasion of unfathomable proportions.
Yet the resurrection of Jesus was not viewed as merely a static fact on this particular third day, a fixed event to remain in this history alone. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” wrote the apostle Paul, “and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”(2) For those who first beheld it, the resurrection was an event with inherent consequences for everything—for order and purpose, for what it means to be human itself. The earliest confessions of Christ’s death, burial, and third day rising from the dead are immediately followed by certain understood implications. As the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story observes of this resurrected one, Jesus went and “thrown everything off balance.”
In a very perceptive book called Life: The Movie, author Neal Gabler argues that entertainment has conquered reality. All of life has become a stage, and the way to success is through the pathway of becoming a celebrity. Gabler suggests that we spend our lives buying and shopping according to images and ideals that we hold as we seek to shape ourselves for our own performance. The constant use of significant celebrities to model lines of clothing, sporting goods, and cosmetics tell us subtly that if we own these items, we too can be like our heroes. We are strategically convinced that we don’t simply have to watch the rich and famous; we can become them. The democratization of credit and the availability of easily-accessed goods guarantee our ability to play the part or parts we choose.
The practical aids are many. Credit and finance options bluntly inquire, “Why wait?” In earlier times people had to consider whether they could afford such things, and they might have had to delay while they saved. The time between viewing and having was often considerable, but not anymore. The messages are clear that we can have it if we want it, and we can have it now. It comes, of course, with a huge price tag in terms of increasing debt and anxiety. But even as the social crisis ticks like a time bomb in many homes, the waiting has been taken out of wanting.
It has become the job of the advertising industry to keep us in a state of permanent dissatisfaction and restlessness with who we are or what we have. The answer is always bigger, better, faster, or more like someone else. Words like “enough,” “sufficient,” and “wait” are derided in favor of having what you want now and immediately becoming who you really want to be. We are informed of our lack of something and then told it is ruining the quality of our lives. But the voices of the media then tell us salvation is at hand! The new product or service will liberate you. It will initiate you into a better world, a new life, an alternative salvation.
A story is told of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, who was famous for two things.(1) First, it is rumored that he lived in a bathtub and took it with him wherever he went. And second, he possessed a lamp. It was said that with his lamp he went throughout Athens, looking for a man who was honest. Legends say that before he could attain success, his lamp went out. His search ended in futility.
Diogenes’ search reflects modern humanity’s search for true justice. As C.S. Lewis says, “Justice means much more than the sort of thing that goes on in Law courts. It is the old name for everything we should now call ‘fairness;’ it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.”(2) Even children at a very early age learn to speak this language of ‘fairness’ whenever they are not treated equally, be it among their peers or between their siblings. We seem to be wired with that strong desire for this world to be in order. Or, in other words, our desire for justice seems to be intrinsic to who we are. Yet with the prevailing injustices that we see all around us, the longing for justice seems to be a far-away reality, if not an exercise in futility.
What kind of world are we in? Is this an evil world? Well, one may object and say ‘no’ because not everything that we see is evil. There are also things in this world that we see that are manifestations of goodness. Is this an all-good world? Again, some may object and say, ‘No, not everything that we see is good.’ Good seems to co-exist alongside evil. So is this then an all-bad world that is becoming good? A naturalist may agree to this by means of science and technology, while a theist may strongly disagree with this. Conversely, we may ask ourselves if this is an all-good world that has gone from bad to worse.
Attempting to answer these questions, one must deal with the ultimate questions of life—such as the origin, meaning, and the purpose of life. Furthermore, critically analyzing these questions, one would inevitably face the question of whether this world is designed by a creator, as the Bible describes it, or whether it is a world that is a result of an accident, as the naturalist would put it. If it is designed, then God is the reference point for all true justice. On the contrary, if it is merely an accident, then humanity becomes the ultimate reference point for all judgments. True justice in any society is one that is anchored on objective moral values, which do not change either on the basis of time or culture.(3)
It is only after basing on such a foundation of an objective moral frame work that one can meaningfully judge between a right and a wrong action, or for that matter between justice and injustice. Ultimately, the objective moral frame work goes only to point to the existence of a moral law-giver, who is holy and righteous in his character. In fact, Fyodor Dostoevsky, a renowned thinker and writer, commented on this point rather bluntly when he said, “If there is no God then all things are permissible.” The Bible declares that the entire human race is guilty of having broken God’s law and hence none is righteous. Even if there were many Diogenes equipped with an equal number of lamps and commissioned to search the entire world, none would be successful in finding a just, impartial, or perfectly righteous person. Our only hope is to point our lamps toward heaven, the only place where the just one dwells.
Balajied Nongrum is a member of the speaking team with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Shillong, India.
(1) R.C. Sproul, One Holy Passion, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 105.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 76.
(3) Charles W. Colson, Justice that Restores, (Secunderabad: OM Books, 2001), 23.