What Does It Mean to Do Justly?

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The prophet Micah tells us what the Lord requires from us:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly,
To love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”

But what does he mean that we are to do or act justly?

God’s attribute of justice

Typically, when we think about God and His justice, we think about it in terms of punishment. God is perfect in His goodness and His judgement is visited on those who do not live up to His requirements.

But is biblical justice really about punishment?

Throughout Scripture, we see God defined by His justice. Quite often when we see the word justice, it’s used alongside or synonymously with the word “righteousness” as in:

“The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress” (Job 37:23).

“The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:5).

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14).

“but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

God is righteous. In fact, we can judge righteousness based on what we know about God. He is upright and good, but He’s also fair and equitable. God’s righteousness is exemplified in His justice. He doesn’t show preference to some over others. In a world where the rich and powerful can tip the scales in their favor, God wants His people to be impartial and evenhanded.

“He rules the world in righteousness
and judges the peoples with equity” (Psalm 9:8).

“For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11).

This fairness is justice, and this is what He requires of us.

God cares about the outsider

Even though God raises up Israel as His special nation, it’s His intention that the rest of the earth will be blessed through them. His law is full of very specific rules about how foreigners and strangers were to be treated. On top of that, He showed very specific interest in others who would likely fall through society’s cracks.

If a woman’s husband died, there was no one to care for her wellbeing, the same thing was true for children who lost both sets of parents, or fathers in particular. God took special interest in ensuring that the fatherless and widows were protected.

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18).

“‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’
Then all the people shall say, ‘’men’” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

“Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds;
rejoice before him-his name is the Lord.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:4-5).

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).

Tips for learning to do justice

As we’ve discussed, God’s justice isn’t about punishment-it’s about fairness. Learning to do justly is about learning to see the world with God’s sense of impartiality.

We learn to do justice when we:

1. Recognize that social systems are not always equitable

We live in a broken world, and inequality, unfairness, and prejudice have made their way into this world’s structure. Even when God was putting together the Law that would govern His people, He took into account people who were not going to be treated fairly or justly.

In a sinful world, people will use their resources, position, or power to take advantage of others, or at the very least will overlook the suffering of others when they have all they need. God expects His people to be on the lookout for this.

As God demonstrated with foreigners, widows, and orphans, there are certain people in society that are going to start at a disadvantage, and they need people who will intervene on their behalf. Who in your community needs someone to care for them? Single mothers? The elderly? People with disabilities? Immigrants?

2. Realize that God expects us to act

We might realize that there are people who have fewer advantages than others, and we might even feel really bad about it-but that’s not enough. God expects us to care for them and take action on their behalf.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the parable, Jesus has brought all the nations before Him and He’s separating the sheep from the goats. This winnowing is based on behaviors like:

  • Feeding the hungry
  • Refreshing the thirsty
  • Inviting the stranger in
  • Clothing the naked
  • Healing the sick
  • Visiting prisoners

The sheep are all the ones who have done these things, and the goats have not. The important reveal in this story is that Jesus so identifies with the downtrodden that by doing these things for the disenfranchised, the sheep have actually done them for Jesus.

That’s why Micah says that God wants people who will do justly. It’s not enough to be sad about injustice or to hope that we’ll eventually get around to doing something for someone in need. He wants people who care enough to take action.

3. Realize that justice isn’t based on personal virtues

It’s interesting that in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, He includes visiting prisoners, yet He doesn’t differentiate between innocent and guilty prisoners. Why? Because that’s not how God operates.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

God’s sense of equity extends to all. He doesn’t show preference to good people and allow bad people to suffer. He sends the warming sun and the refreshing rain to them all. And He wants us to show the same kind of impartiality.

Many skeptics of Christianity see it as a negative force that has too often contributed to injustice in the world. In God’s economy, His children earnestly desire to see God’s kingdom operating in the world as it is in heaven. In an unfair world, we should be a stabilizing force, helping to make the world a more equitable place to live.