He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
A seminary course on the minor prophets did not adequately prepare me to reconcile the iconic passage from Micah with our work inside the 33rd Street Jail. Being repeatedly surrounded by barbed wire and correctional officers highlighted for me a glaring contradiction in the oft cross-stitched verse.
It has a nice ring: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. Yet, how is it possible to fight for justice and mercy, when in the jail they seem to be polar opposites?
An inmate recently asked, “Would God really sentence me to prison when He knows my heart?” It seemed to him that a lengthy sentence would be far less useful than a productive life serving God as a free man. Surely God favors mercy in his case, especially since he had seen the error of his ways, right? It’s a tension I now hold in my own heart: God calls me to justice and mercy?
Justice indicates appropriate punishment for an offense in attempt to restore order to a disturbed world. In a robbery, stolen goods are returned and neighbors are protected from the thief. When my car window was broken, I wanted the expense of replacing my property to impact the offender’s pocket and not my own.
I love justice. Justice fights for protection of the poor, the defenseless, and the vulnerable. I want things to be made right in my own life, and I desire justice for others, as well. To bear witness time and again to the carnage created by crime and injustice leaves one longing for things to be set right again. To hear stories of abuse and abandonment and attempted murder simultaneously evokes anger and mourning over the brokenness of our fallen world.
Equally, I love mercy. Mercy gives second chances. It opens doors where justice would close them. Mercy means pardon from the penalty of offense, and instead says, “Free, forgiven, reconciled.” Watching an inmate begin to understand God’s grace, repent, and in turn worship God with more than mere song makes it easy to hope for mercy, to want another chance at becoming a law-abiding, productive citizen who serves God with his life.
Independent of one another, it’s easy to agree with both concepts. Yet what should I do when Saturday night my car is broken into and Sunday afternoon I am singing beside a habitual car thief? How do I reconcile stories from abuse victims on Monday night with those on Tuesday night of attempted patricide? Is it possible to do justly and love mercy when those things are wildly in opposition?
As I’ve fought with God about the impossibility of this task, I’ve had to lean hard into the third phrase. Perhaps it is the best counsel, anyway, that I could offer an inmate facing his upcoming court date.
“Walk humbly with your God.”
Walk humbly with God. Walk tentatively, and cautiously, courteously, respectfully. Walk without arrogance of what you think is best. Rather than setting your demands for how God can prove his faithfulness to you, instead surrendering to God’s plan, and receiving with gratitude His path before you. It is eerily similar to the third step of any 12-step program: “Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”
Walking humbly with God, trusting him with the outcome of a court case, impending lab results, or a decision about whether to take the new job—is, for many of us, the hardest thing we face in our Christian walk. We’ve experienced the sorrow and disappointment of wanting God’s mercy where only justice is found. We’ve felt the anger of wanting justice for our broken windows when the intruder gets away scot-free.
We’re invited into a kingdom ruled by a King who is ultimately good. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). Sometimes in life it just rains, and that bears no indication of whether you’re an honest farmer or a sheisty street performer.
The only way I can do justly and love mercy is to walk humbly, to trust that God is good and that he loves me. If He is indeed good, then I can trust Him with open hands to receive his blessing, whatever that is—whether it’s rain in my desert, or rain on my parade.