On Tuesday 21 November, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe tended his resignation as President of Zimbabwe after 37 years in office. But only after two weeks of political unrest. This included Mugabe accusing his Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, of disloyalty and then firing him. It also involved Mugabe’s own political party (the governing ZANU-PF party) expelling him and the military placing him on house arrest. Finally he was threatened with impeachment proceedings.
For over three decades Mugabe has never been far from the news. He spent over a decade as a political prisoner in Zimbabwe, rising to govern the nation in 1980. Whilst at first he promoted reconciliation with the white population, over the decades his leadership became more and more tyrannical. Mugabe ordered the invasion, imprisonment and killing of innocent people who disagreed with his rule.
What attitude does God expect us to have towards people who commit crimes against humanity, like Mugabe?
If God is a forgiving and merciful God what attitude does he expect us to have towards people who commit crimes against humanity? And closer to home, what attitude does God expect us to have to those that sin against us personally? Like the friend who betrays us, or the work colleague who intentionally ‘slacks off’ leaving us to do their work?
God in his sovereignty provided, through the cross of Christ, both the gift of mercy and the gift of forgiveness. He saved us from his eternal wrath and opened up the way for us to have a personal relationship with him if we turn to him.
God in his great mercy permitted Jesus to pay the legal penalty of death on our behalf. And this same cosmic sacrifice opened the door for us to receive forgiveness and enjoy reconciliation with God. The required payment and satisfaction for our sin was made by Jesus Christ.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3:18
God both showed mercy and extended forgiveness to everyone through the cross.
What about justice?
But if Jesus paid for the penalty for people’s sins through his death, why do we feel outrage when there seems to be little just for patent wrongdoing? Does the Bible say anything about whether there should be any earthly consequences or penalties for sin? And what roles do mercy and forgiveness have to play in our intrinsic sense of justice?
The Bible does provide us with the answers to these perplexing and often confusing questions. However, to understand this, we need to know the inter-relationship between justice, mercy and forgiveness both eternally and on earth. Then we won’t confuse them and end up misunderstanding both what Jesus achieved through the cross and what that means for our relationships.
Justice involves the satisfaction of the legal payment for sin. In fact, you may hear people describe earthly justice as suffering “the consequences of sin”. Mercy can be offered to an offender only by the person or authority who has the jurisdiction to offer a pardon or remission for such consequences. So both justice and mercy are only exercisable by the person or entity rightly entitled and entrusted to execute punishment.
How does forgiveness fit in?
Forgiveness on the other hand, is relevant only in the context of a relationship. And this involves the offended party personally absorbing the relational hurt caused them by the offence. By doing this, the offended person removes the relational barriers (on their side) caused by the wrongdoing. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation to occur but they not the same thing. For reconciliation to occur, both sinful parties must confess their sins, ask for forgiveness and forgive each other.
God establishes governments and authorities and gives them power to determine what is just and permitted in our society. He gives them the jurisdiction to punish offenders for their crimes against humanity. These same entities are authorised to exercise mercy as they discern and determine. So, in the case of Mugabe and other criminals, the exercise of justice or extension of mercy is in the hands of the relevant court or authority.
As far us, the Bible says that we should ask God to grant the gift of repentance to all people everywhere, including Mugabe! (2 Timothy 2:25) However, unless we have been personally affected by the actions of Mugabe, we really have no relationship within which to forgive him. We can and should, however, cultivate an attitude and perspective of love for him, as God’s Word commands that we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:9-21).
Those that sin against us
In the case of an offence caused to us by our friend or our co-worker, the issues of justice, mercy and forgiveness may in fact intersect. We are be able to choose to forgive them because of our personal relationship with them. We may, however, also be the person who is rightfully entitled to allow them to suffer the usual consequence of their wrong-doing towards us.
In both the case of our friend or our co-worker (or anyone else who sins against us and with whom we have a personal relationship) the answer to whether we should forgive them is simple. We are called to forgive. Hard as this is, the Bible says clearly that we are to forgive as Christ forgives us. (Colossians 3:13). Mark 11:25 similarly says: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
This does not mean that we shouldn’t raise an issue with our friend or co-worker about what they have done wrong. It does, however, mean that in having that conversation we go with a soft and forgiving heart. We raise the issue with gentleness and a heart for restoring them not condemning them (Galatians 6:1). We are not just called to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15). (At PeaceWise, we call this the 3rd G – Gently restore. See also the article, Serving each other through forgiveness and reconciliation by Tim Keller)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesian 4:32 NIV)
Justice or mercy?
When should we let justice prevail (i.e. letting someone suffer the natural consequences of their wrongdoing). Or when should we grant them mercy (i.e. choosing to spare them from the natural consequences of their wrongdoing). This is not easy to discern. We are provided with two fundamental principles in the Bible – to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39). As applied to any particular situation, God invites us to ask ourselves: ‘What in this situation would most please and honour God? And, ‘What would be the most loving thing to do for the offender – exercise justice or extend mercy?’
There are no pat answers to the question of whether to let justice prevail or exercise mercy. In every and any given situation where this dilemma confronts us, we need to prayerfully seek discernment from God. If in any situation we need to determine whether to exercise justice or mercy, let’s encourage each other to always consider humbly and lovingly what God is calling us to do.
The unfairness of forgiveness
But regardless of whether justice is properly exercised or mercy graciously extended here on earth, let’s always exhort each other to forgive the ‘unforgivable’. For no matter how ‘unfair’ it is that Christ died to forgive someone like Mugabe – the very same ‘inequity’ that Christ extended to Mugabe is the same ‘inequity’ that Christ extends to us ‘ordinary’ sinners, too. The penalty of sin paid by Jesus not only perfectly satisfied God’s holy and just requirement but also eternally breaks down our relational separation from God. In that one momentous act, both ordinary and heinous sinners alike, had mercy and forgiveness extended to them from a holy God. Now that’s worth calling Good News!
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8).
Information on Robert Mugabe obtained from http://www.history.com/topics/robert-mugabe