Living In An Unjust World | 08.22.21 | Psalms Pt 6
We live in an unjust world.
Injustices happen to individuals, mar institutions and befall entire people groups.
The fact that injustices occur every day is undeniable to anyone who is paying attention and following the news.
Millions around the globe are being denied a basic education as well as a voice in the determination of their own future – just because they are women.
Members of the LGTBQI community are regularly mistreated and subjected to abuse and violence – all as a result of their sexual orientation.
The elderly and widows are taken advantage of and fall prey to various financial scams.
Those who live in poverty are victimized by predatory economic practices that prevent them from ever being able to get ahead.
Minority groups are profiled as threats or troublemakers because of the color of their skin or the unfamiliarity of their last name.
Workers on the frontline of society are refused a living wage, basic healthcare or are cheated out of their pensions.
Refugees are displaced from their homes and left with nowhere to live or find safety.
Injustice is a reality in this world.
Terrible injustices occur each day, in each community, not just on the news but also far removed from the headlines.
The reality of an unjust world is all too familiar in the Book of Psalms.
This ancient prayerbook of the Bible repeatedly contends with the question of justice – what it is, why it is lacking, and where it can be found.
Today we are going to read one of those psalms – # 37 – what is known as a wisdom psalm.
This prayer is not a petition or praise. It is more of a centering or guiding prayer.
In a world where evil appears to flourish unabated and the wicked grow ever more wealthy, healthy, and powerful, – all seemingly without consequence,
as we often look around in despair or anger and ask ourselves, how can are we respond to injustice?
How are we supposed to live in an unjust world?
Psalms like these offer us perspective and direction – as well as hope – hope not only for tomorrow, but hope we can embody in the present moment before us.
Hope that comes from God alone. (TEXT)
Before we dive into the particulars of this psalm, we need to be sure to define our terms – what the Bible’s understanding of justice and injustice are versus our own perception of them.
People call for justice whenever they believe they have experienced injustice.
But more often than not, our appeals for justice are based on personal, social, and political circumstances.
This has become particularly true as we live at a very polarized time in our country’s history and in our broader world – a time where so many feel and therefore are convinced there are just two sides to every matter: the right side and the wrong side.
The right side – the just side – is what I affirm, what I think is most important, what I believe is sacred and should not be violated.
And not surprisingly, the wrong side – what is unjust – is anyone who does not agree for whatever reason with my perspective, anyone who threatens to challenge or change what I believe is good, right, and true.
In other words, our sense of justice and injustice tends to be subjective.
If someone runs a red light, we shake our fists and look around for a police officer to pull that person over and enact justice.
But if we run a red light and someone honks at us or if we get pulled over, we become aloof (Is there a problem, officer?) or defensive (Why did you pull me over? Everybody does it!)
When justice and injustice are defined by human standards, there tend to be double standards – where what’s right and wrong don’t always apply to me but should always apply to you or them.
Biblically, however, justice isn’t arbitrary or generic in its definition.
Biblically, it is what God declares and purposes life ought to be – how the world is supposed to work, how we are supposed to relate to and treat each other that defines what is just – what is good, right, and true.
Biblical justice involves upholding commonality, equality, impartiality, dignity, generosity, and mutual advocacy in the midst of great diversity between individuals, among communities, and in the cosmos.
Biblical justice is less of a checklist of rules and guidelines and more rooted in the very character of God.
Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term – people living in right relationship with God, one another, and all creation.
The obvious and often asked question then, is Why is there injustice in our lives and in this world?
Because we live in a world filled with broken, imperfect people – all of us.
As human beings we choose to define what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil for ourselves.
We deny the image of God in which we have been created and therefore refuse to see all humans as image-bearers of our Creator that deserve to be treated with equity, dignity, compassion, and generosity.
Even though by God’s common grace, we have been granted a conscience – to instinctively know what is right and wrong, we violate our conscience by rewiring it according to what we desire rather than what the Lord wills.
We decide to categorize ourselves and others according to our own standards and therefore are quick to categorize ourselves as the righteous and others as the wicked.
Together as we live apart from God – not reflecting the Lord’s character, not living for the Lord’s purposes but choosing to live for ourselves – we have turned human existence into the survival of the fitness rather than liberty and justice for all.
Broken people treat each other in broken ways.
This is the concern the psalmist is responding to – not our perception of injustice because we aren’t getting our way – because life isn’t working according to our rules – but rather – the lack of justice on God’s terms – the world not working the way the Lord created it to be – at both an individual level and societal level.
With this understanding in mind, Psalm 37 describes the reality of facing injustice on a day-to-day basis – the injustice of the strong and privileged taking advantage of the weak and the vulnerable, the injustice of cheaters prospering, of crooks who get away with stealing, the injustice of those who abuse their power and authority to oppress – and even murder others.
The psalmist acknowledges h ow we tend to react before such injustice – as we witness and experience the God-defying, graceless ways and means that pervade the fabric of our everyday lives and practices.
“Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong;” – Psalm 37:1
On our own, we tend to “fret” (great word!) – meaning we put ourselves in a constant and building state of anxiety or worry.
Multiple times in this song, the psalmist urges us not to do this before the reality of injustice.
We are repeatedly cautioned against responding in this way because when we stew like this – as we remain in a continual state of negativity – of fear, worry, anger, resentment, and/or even jealousy – we are liable to end up in one of two states of being.
We either give up or we give in.
We either give up and take matters into our own hands. We strike back. We lash out. We attempt to execute our own brand of justice.
Or we give in. We give in to apathy. We bury our heads in the sand.
We tell ourselves that’s just the way it is, “The world is unfair” and we look the other way and ignore the problem until it’s staring us in the face.
Sometimes we give in to more than mere apathy. Sometimes we give in to the temptation to do what is wrong because it seems to be what pays off.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.
These days, most people, both in and outside of the Church, are displaying everything but a quiet and calm spirit right now.
As a nation, as a global community, we are simultaneously worried, angry, anxious, exhausted, and frustrated.
And the response of many of our leaders – those to whom we look to and listen for guidance – on television, radio, the internet, and social media – is to either stoke the outrage and bitterness – the spirit of retaliation or to rationalize and justify doing what’s best for you – to stop being a sap and to get what yours while you can in a world gone mad.
But the psalmist admonishes against both of these reactions.
Beloved, let us listen carefully for we desperately need the wisdom of another perspective – of God’s point of view.
The psalmist warns us fretting over injustice is wasted energy that leads to nothing good.
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” – Psalm 37:8
It makes matters worse – not better. It adds to the brokenness of this life rather than contributing to its healing.
Existing in a perpetual state of fear and worry erodes the faith God gives us in His goodness, in His sovereignty – that this world isn’t spinning out of control and destined for destruction, that our lives aren’t random and ultimately meaningless.
If dread and melancholy are all we feel, if cynicism and bitterness are our only mindset, if defensiveness and violence – either explicitly or passive-aggressively – are our default reactions, then we need to immediately check our spiritual pulse.
Despite what we profess – based on how we feel, how we think, speak, and act – do we functionally believe more in the power of sin, the triumph of evil, and the viability of ill-gotten gains than we believe – than we live out of the power of God, the victory of Christ, and the promises of the Gospel?
But we push back – the prosperity of the unjust – that cheaters get rewarded, that those who do evil appear to benefit from their wrongdoing, that the ones who break all the rules are the only ones who look like they get ahead in the game of life, that only the strong seem to survive, – the reality of injustice makes it look as if there is no moral order in the world.
To this, the psalmist answers, despite how things look, there is an inseparable, inevitable link between actions and consequences.
The fruits of wickedness and evil will not last but will wither away.
“…like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.” – Psalm 37:2
“But the wicked will perish: Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.” – Psalm 37:20
Those who persist unrepentantly in choosing to do what is wrong will eventually meet their Maker and be held accountable.
“The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow… But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.” – Psalm 37:14-15
In other words, what goes around, comes around.
I thought our God was a God of grace and mercy? What about the Lord’s forgiveness and love?
Indeed, we are extended, we are offered, God’s love and forgiveness – they are given to us, placed before us through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But if we reject God’s love and forgiveness, despite what we say, if we functionally refuse to live out of the mercy and grace of God, then we reap whatever we sow.
And apart from God, all we can ultimately sow is death and destruction.
It is only in following Jesus, that we can reap what God purposes to sow in our lives – the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It is only through abiding in Christ that we can reap the harvest of God’s Kingdom – grace, faith, hope, and justice.
There is a moral order to all creation but it is only as we yield to the Spirit of Christ who directs and empowers us both to know and live according to the way of the Lord that we can experience full, abundant, and everlasting life.
Notice, while the psalmist asserts there is a moral order to all creation, the psalmist urges us not to put our trust in that moral order but to direct our focus and to put trust in the Lord.
The first way we are to respond to and resist evil and injustice is by continuing to put our trust in the Lord.
Take a highlighter and note all the different verbs
the psalmist uses to underscore this point.
“Turn to the Lord.” (verse 3)
“Take delight in the Lord.” (verse 4)
“Commit your way to the Lord.” (verse 5)
“Be still and wait patiently before the Lord.” (verses 7 – 8)
“Hope in the Lord.” (verse 34)
Let’s particularly focus on this verb in verse 5: “commit.”
The word used here translated as “commit” means to roll something upon someone else’s shoulders.
Instead of sitting in our worries and our frustrations by ourselves, we begin to resist injustice by taking “our way” – our perspective, our tendency in responding – all our anger, our resentment, our jealousy – all our negative feelings, nagging questions, or concerns for justice, and to roll or cast them onto God’s shoulders.
With verse 7, the psalmist quickly frames the management of our expectations when it comes to living in an unjust world.
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” – Psalm 37:7
In a world of immediate gratification, we cannot expect instantaneous results when it comes to the enactment of full, perfect, and lasting justice in this life.
Living in an unjust world, the psalmist is telling us to engage the long game – to walk by faith and not by sight – to be trained for a marathon and not a sprint.
We are to trust what God says – who God is – more than what we see, more than what we feel, more than what we think.
But we can’t do this – walk by faith, trust in the Lord – if we are determined to keep looking for karma or to keep trying to control events and circumstances ourselves.
When the world is not the way it’s supposed to be and as we find ourselves plagued with worry or exuding nothing but complaints or worse, rage, let us take that as a cue to get on our knees, to come before the throne of heaven with the word of God in our hands, and to open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.
We begin to resist injustice by first coming to and relying on God – trusting that in the Lord’s hands, as another preacher once declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”
But trusting in the Lord in the face of injustice is not a matter of passive waiting – of sitting around and doing nothing.
Notice, for the psalmist, walking by faith is not hunkering down in a foxhole, massaging our ticket to heaven, and biding our time until we go home to Jesus or Christ returns to this world in glory.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to actively confront and resist injustice.
Not by human will or might but through faith in the Lord, we can and will make a visible difference here and now.
The second step we can and must take in response to injustice is resisting evil by doing good – to counter injustice by ourselves acting justly.
While this directive can be witnessed throughout the psalm, let us pay particular attention to verse 6 – especially in the relation to verse 5.
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.” – Psalm 37:5-6
The two verses together powerfully convey the idea that faith cannot be separated from action.
Committing our way to the Lord – trusting that God is in control, that the Lord will reconcile all things, that our Heavenly Father can bring light out of darkness – committing our way to the Lord means living as He has created, called, and empowered us to live together.
In turning towards God, we then reflect the image of God – the character and nature of God – the person of Christ – to others.
As we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The psalmist declares such a posture, such practices are their own reward – for they demonstrate our connectedness to our Heavenly Father.
More than this, by the grace of God, as we embody through what we think, we say, and what we do, life as the Lord intends, love as God in Christ has revealed it to be, God works through our obedience.
As the psalmist beautifully describes, the Lord’s righteousness and justice will shine through us – bringing light into this present darkness – the Light of Jesus.
While enacting justice ultimately is God’s responsibility; we have been entrusted and empowered as stewards of God’s character and purposes to pursue righteousness and work for justice.
This leaves us with a crucial question. What does it mean to pursue biblical righteousness? What does working for biblical justice look like?
One way we can answer this question is by probing the rest of Psalm 37 and gleaning from the repeated contrast that is made between the righteous and the wicked.
A couple of important observations stand out.
Righteousness is presented not in conformity to a bunch of rules but more in a relational sense – how we engage with others in our day-to-day living.
It is less about not breaking the law as it is just doing right by our family, friends, neighbors, and the wider community by acting with fairness and equity, compassion and generosity.
Again, what’s insightful here is living righteously is more than avoidance ethic – steering clear of wrongdoing – borrowing something without returning or paying back;
“The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously…” – Psalm 37:21
living righteously is going further than this – it is extending ourselves – not thinking of our goods as belonging only to ourselves by giving from what we have received to those in need.
In the Kingdom of God, sharing is not extra credit; it is an essential part of reflecting the Lord’s character and thus promoting the justice of God.
What we also learn from the examples in Psalm 37 is, working for justice means more to us than don’t oppress or take advantage of others.
To live righteously, to work for justice is to seek to correct what is wrong – to make right any wrong that has been done and to advocate and protect those who are being wronged by inequity and oppressive treatment.
Right now, living righteously and working for justice is being complicated – even confused – as every person wants to claim, every community argues that are being oppressed or mistreated.
Words like “privilege” come up and we get defensive claiming there’s no such thing.
Notions of “systemic” problems – like racism or socio-economic inequality are raised and we insist that’s just simply not true.
Here’s the thing, if you’re a Christian, there’s no way you can argue against the systemic nature of injustice.
Biblically, injustice, like all sin, is not merely an individual problem – a superficial issue of a few wrong decisions and actions being made here and there.
No, injustice – again like all sin – is systemic in nature.
As I laid out at the beginning of this sermon, injustice is an inevitable byproduct of humanity’s willful and continued separation from God.
In attempting to construct a life and a world without God we have inevitably created and perpetuate systems – political, economic, social, etc. – that operate in contradiction and defiance to the Lord’s intent for all creation.
A brilliant, modern Christian thinker named Andy Crouch has expressed it this way: “Injustice is a social system in which some people have authority without vulnerability at the expense of other people having vulnerability without authority.”
By “vulnerability,” Crouch is referring to exposure to great risk, to deprivation, and loss.
In view of a broken and fallen world, Crouch observes we cannot get rid of vulnerability – the have-nots, if you will, you can only temporarily relocate such vulnerability – passing the buck and the burden – building our lives on the backs of somebody else.
Injustice then is a systemic issue.
Injustice results as a group of human beings somehow acquire enough power that they can temporarily realize their dream of authority without vulnerability but it is always at the expense of others who are loaded with vulnerability – risk, loss, suffering that is not theirs to bear.
Apart from God, human beings take power and claim authority in the only way they can – through violence and threat – and relocate the vulnerability of our shared humanity – our brokenness – our need for God – elsewhere.
As a result, getting back the pushback of some against the use of the word, “privilege,” the Bible argues strongly that the notion of privilege does exist in our broken world.
From the beginning of the formation of the nation of Israel all the way through the prophets, our collective attention is called to vulnerable groups or classes of people.
The most common grouping repeatedly mentioned in the scriptures is what has been called the “quartet of the vulnerable”: the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the poor.”
This grouping was never intended to be exclusive, however.
The broader point which Jesus underscored is our Heavenly Father’s sensitivity towards those on the margins of life – those without the privileges of life that others enjoy – the alienated, the disenfranchised, the abused, and the powerless.
So rather than ignore or deny it; we need to pay more attention to acknowledging our privilege and using it for the good of others.
Instead of arguing or denying our privilege, working for justice means following Jesus in laying aside our power and authority for the sake of serving those in need – for bettering the lives of those who are suffering.
Working for justice isn’t about one particular group of people – but being motivated and engaged to seek Christ’s vision of life where ALL can flourish as God intends.
Having eyes to see and reflect such a vision means we must recognize the advantages, opportunities, resources, and power we’ve been accorded to which others have been overtly or subtly denied.
The recognition of this comes not from our own opinion or the opinion of others – particularly those who endorse our preconceived views; such recognition comes through the conviction of the Word and the Spirit.
Are we opening ourselves to that perspective?
For the early church, this was the perspective through which they followed Jesus. Hear it now described by another brother in the faith:
“Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Systemic inequalities have been laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those in positions of power and privilege experienced the pandemic differently and continue to do so.
To look at this life, this world, no longer from our own narrow, self-centered perspective can be overwhelming.
Our eyes can become open to more injustice than we were initially attuned to.
Greater awareness of need can leave us feeling paralyzed because we can’t do everything.
Let us remember, it is not about us doing everything. We cannot alone or together save this world and set everything right. This is the promise and work of God in Christ alone.
But we can and we must participate in the solution for all that ails this broken world rather than to keep adding to the problem.
We have been empowered through the Word and the Spirit to reflect the righteousness and justice of the Gospel – to embody the love, grace, and truth of Jesus Christ.
Instead of pretending we don’t know or acting like we don’t care, let us in following Jesus, commit to using whatever power and authority we have, and become advocates, allies, for those who are in need.
There is no getting around the fact that we live in an unjust world. But the hope of the Gospel gives injustice an expiration date.
Thankfully we look to a God who is just – just enough to set everything right all that has been wrong and more than just to extend to us grace – to not abandon us or treat us according to the injustice we perpetuate.
We cannot solve the problems of this world on our own. On our own, we only contribute to them. Instead, we must keep coming back to the Lord – entrusting our way to Him – following Christ’s lead by being reconciled to each other and living rightly with everyone – and together working for justice – above and beyond what our civil law and dictionary definitions require – striving by the grace of God for equity and flourishing of all creation. Amen.