Judgment and Compassion
The following was originally written in March 2003. In light of the current crisis in the U.S. and the rest of the world I am posting it. I am not necessarily drawing parallels to any past situation. What I am calling all of us to do is to all things and all situations in light of the Word of God.
Recently Christianity Today ran as it’s cover story, Bono of U2 and his fight against AIDS in Africa. He doesn’t stand alone in this and has partnered with Franklin Graham in addressing the need for American Christians to not only recognize the crisis, but to extend a hand of compassion to the victims. The spread of AIDS is devastating the African continent due to sexual promiscuity. This cause cannot be ignored and needs to be addressed. Certainly, we must recognize that there are multitudes of children and spouses who have contracted this disease innocently, and most people would advocate the extension of mercy and compassion to this group. But what about those who have acquired this disease through sexual immorality, are they deserving of our compassion?
All of this raises an interesting question, with implications far beyond the issue of AIDS, involving the Christian response to what can be viewed as a judgment of God, resulting from breaking of God’s law. Should our reaction be to say that these people are under the judgment of God and deserve what the get, and to show compassion to them is to fight against God? What is the proper Christian response?
Albert Camus attempted to address this dilemma as he saw it for the Christian, in his existentialist novel The Plague. He dramatically illustrates the problem through his character of Father Paneloux, an elderly priest who seeks to come to terms with the suffering and death he sees around him. Especially troubling to him is the agony of children. Theologically, he knows that he can not deny the sovereignty of God. He knows that all things ultimately come to pass because of God’s will. So if God ordained it, it must be right. To lift so much as a finger to prevent it is to act against the “ordained sovereign will of God.” The only way to honor God is by a full acceptance of His will. This is the conclusion that Father Paneloux comes to. (A young deacon in the novel summarizes the position of the priest in the statement: “It is illogical for a priest to call in a doctor.”)
Father Paneloux’s logic is understandable. If God is sovereign and nothing happens apart from His will, and if He is good and cannot will what is evil, therefore all things are good. We cannot fight a plague, because it is God-ordained; and we have the duty to “love” the plague because it is one of God’s good works.
Here is the question: Should we say that we must not fight this “plague” (AIDS), not only because it is the will of God, but also because many of its victims are sinners who have brought it upon themselves? Is it wrong to try and help those under judgment?
The answer to those two questions is of course – NO! In fact the dilemma is a false dilemma. It is true that God is sovereign, this is shown to us throughout the Scriptures. It is also true that God judges sin – sin has consequences – this is shown to us throughout the Scriptures. No, the reason that this is a false dilemma lies in the fact that it ignores the revelation of God’s Word. It ignores the way God has revealed Himself in the Gospel. It fails to take into account that all suffering is because of disobedience, for as the Scripture declares: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). All of us, every last one of us deserves God’s judgment. On the basis of this false dilemma we should never resist death, never seek to postpone it, because it is simply God’s righteous judgment for sin. Yet, Jesus reveals through word and deed a completely different perspective.
As Francis Schaeffer pointed out in his book, The God Who Is There: “The Christian never faces the dilemma posed in Camus’ book La Peste [The Plague]. It simply is not true that he either has to side with the doctor against God by fighting the plague, or join with the priest on God’s side and thus be much less than human by not fighting the plague. If it were an either/or choice in life, it would indeed be terrible. But the Christian is not confined to such a choice. . . . Jesus, standing in front of the tomb of Lazarus, was angry at death and at the abnormality of the world – the destruction and distress caused by sin. In Camus’ words, Christ hated the plague. He claimed to be God, and He could hate the plague without hating Himself as God.”
Can we have mercy and compassion on those who suffer under the righteous judgment of God? I believe that we can and should. Is that not what Jesus demonstrated in His earthly ministry for us? For example, in one of the final discourses of His ministry, He pronounced a devastating judgment on first-century Israel for her apostasy and the rejection of their Messiah. But at the same time, He was able to weep over her, saying: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37).
Does God save us on the condition that we are not guilty, or at least on the condition that we haven’t committed any really bad sins? Absolutely not, God saves sinners – He justifies the ungodly. He reconciles His enemies to Himself.
The ministry of the Church is to be redemptive; a ministering to the world of the redemption brought about by the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to follow His example, showing forth both the love and holiness of God. There is no philosophical dilemma here, because God Himself has resolved it, demonstrating His love and His holy righteous judgment at the Cross. “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).