The extensive reading I do for Christian publishers often finds me reading about the subject of justification, which inevitably means that I think about and ponder the subject often . Recently I read a book about the novel Middlemarch , which had the alarming insight that romantic partners of disparate ages often share similar insecurities about love and relationships, and that people are not always as grown up as they may appear on the outside. This is an insight that applies to other areas of life as well. When we think about the issue of justification, there is often weighty theological language struggling over the question of whether and to what extent we have a role in our justification, whether it is defined by the person as a single event or as a lengthy, even life-long process, and what it means to be justified in the first place. At its heart, justification is not an intellectual matter at all, but a relational matter. What does it take to make us right with God and with each other? All of the theological and elevated language used to describe the subject of justification merely serves to cover up the fact that what is being discussed is a core matter of identity, an emotional subject that it is impossible not to feel deeply about. Just like little children playing dress-up, the subject of justification is a matter that reminds us that in God’s eyes we are all little children, no matter how bright we are or how many initials are after our name. It is easy to forget that we are really dealing with the problems and crises of childhood when we use big words and appear as grown-ups on the outside.
For the last several years of my father’s life, my father and I engaged in a long and indecisive argument about church government. From the time I was in my teens to when we had our last phone conversation shortly before the stroke that led to his rapid demise in my mid 20’s, nearly every week we would talk on the phone and at some point we would circle back to our inevitable disagreement. My father, who was by no means confident in his own fitness to rule others, nevertheless longed for a strong male leader to bring order to the anarchy that threatened his world. In contrast, and just as fiercely, I saw in one man rule the sure road to abuse and tyranny. Yet both of us were using bible verses and justifications as part of a proxy battle for a much larger, much scarier, and much more essential spiritual battle. You see, for the first six years of his life, my father had been made to share a bed with a child molester, who happened to be his long-widowed grandmother, until she died as a bitter man-hating woman who regularly belittled my paternal grandfather as mere hired help on the family farm . My father’s longing for strong male authority was an entirely appropriate response to a harrowing childhood of abuse that resulted from the absence of strong godly male leadership. So too my abhorrence to tyrannical government sprang from the painful and early experience of child abuse, a reminder that ungodly people cannot be trusted with power, even the fairly modest power of raising children. Our intellectual and cerebral arguments were playing dress-up for two deeply broken and wounded small children who viewed the positions of the others as a horror that could not be accepted. The truly essential and fundamental problem of government that we were wrestling over was not the external form of government, but rather what sort of character was possessed by the people in it. We were both in stark agreement, even if we could never put it into words, that ungodly people will make a mess out of government, and that one of the main tragedies of human existence is that our lives are full of ungodly people, including ourselves, who cause a lot of harm and do a lot of damage to others even without intention. This is true whether there is one powerful and ungodly tyrant oppressing others, or many smaller bullies oppressing others in the absence of a government capable of restraining them.
Justification begins early in life. At the Feast of Tabernacles last year, I happened to be seated for lunch next to one of my youngest friends, an adorable child who combines a tender and sensitive heart, keen observation of others, and a melancholy longing for love and affection. During the course of the lunch, she managed to absent-mindedly knock over a glass of water on top of me, drenching my suit with ice-cold water and requiring a lot of napkins to dry up the table and chair. She was very quick to justify herself by saying, “It was an accident,” as soon as she had picked up the word from others around, and even if I was quite irritated at being soaked, it was an accident and I was not angry at her. Nor could I be angry at someone for being clumsy, because I am an extremely clumsy person who regularly knocks over music stands and microphones and tends to be somewhat easily startled with gangly limbs, which is a recipe for clumsiness in general. So, I was frustrated at being wet, but it was not necessary for my young friend to justify herself, as I was not angry at her. Accidents happen, and we do not blame people for being accident-prone, as that is not just. One of my own first memories involves justification in a somewhat different sense. I was four years old, and being a curious child, I wondered what would happen if I stuck my right pinky in the wheel of an exercise bike and spun the wheel. The predictable result was that my finger was mangled, and despite the excruciating pain, I went to the restroom and tried to tend and dress the wound myself and not let anyone know by crying out that something was wrong. After all, I was not used to having people pay attention to my concerns and wounds as a small child. I thought as a child that as I had made the mistake, so I ought to make it right myself, despite the fact that an injured four year old trying to be quiet and brave is perhaps not the best person to dress and tend injuries.
In many ways, we never grow up from being small children. When it comes to justification, either with God or with others, we are all in the position of anxious and terrified small children, afraid of others being angry and suffering consequences as a result of that anger over our misdeeds. As we grow older, our attitude changes, and we layer our fear and anguish with sarcasm and irony, with the elaborate language of casuistry and theology, but at its heart the issues never change. We go along life without much reflection seeking to self-medicate our own wounded souls, or seek our own private pleasure, unless we are alerted to our actions causing offense to others, and if we offend those we care about, our primary concern is what needs to happen in order to be right with that person, for the offense to go away, for the relationship to return to normal so that we can resume life untroubled and without the action being held over our heads for all time. If this can be done with minimal change, all the better, if not, and if the relationship matters enough for us not to simply cast it aside and move on, we are forced to wrestle with the deep matters that lie at our own core, to wrestle with our own demons, and to stare into the darkness and the horror that lies inside our hearts at their deepest and most fundamental level. No one emerges from that wrestling unchanged. For we know we are deeply flawed, and we know that we want to be loved and respected and honored by others, and we groan against the injustices done to us even as we all realize that we do not wish to be treated with justice apart from mercy, for we would all be doomed. Yet we struggle to be merciful to others who are in the exact some boat that we are in, people needing mercy knowing they do not deserve it, but trying to justify their feelings and their worth and their sense of dignity in the absence of genuine merit. So we believe that doing good deeds can somehow erase bad deeds, even though we cannot erase the horrors we have seen from our minds, from our troubled sleep, and from the deep anguish of our hearts. We strive to repay our debts, to wipe the slate clean, so that our past cannot be held against us, even where we were not exactly to be blamed.
In terms of mechanics, justification is a simple matter. An offense is recognized, it is repented of, and the offending behavior is changed so that the relationship can begin again anew, with the wrong no longer being held against the offender. Yet justification is difficult because the desire of the repentant offender for restoration is not a desire that can be earned, but it must be graciously and freely given by the one offended. We are in control of our actions, and in our responses to the actions of others, but we have no control over the repercussions and consequences of those actions in the free responses taken by others. We may suffer as a result of those repercussions and consequences, but they belong to others. The terms others choose to require for restoration are up to them—restoration can be freely given, it can be given guardedly and cautiously and gradually, it can be given after elaborate and humiliating pageants of penitence, or it may not be given at all. Our attempts at justification are in vain because we seek through arguments and rhetoric to serve what amounts as largely emotional manipulation, seeking to induce others to act according to our will that which is the sole privilege and responsibility of others. If we are to be made right with others, it is because others wipe our slate clean. Our responsibility, therefore, is not to justify ourselves, but to be the sort of people whose graciousness and compassion for others makes it easier for us to be justified in their eyes, recognizing that not only are we little children but so is everyone else we encounter in their own ways. Perhaps what it means to be mature after all is not that we are any less child-like in our own behavior, but that we no longer expect anyone else to be anything other than little children themselves, dressed up in fancy clothes or possessed of a large vocabulary, but still little children where it matters most, and that we treat all others with the patience and forbearance that we treat the little children in our lives . How else are we to make our world less scary, after all?
 See, for example: