Trusting God when you’re the victim of injustice
Sooner or later injustice happens to us all. Yet knowledge of that fact never really prepares us for the pain of unjust circumstances when we experience them.
I received a letter recently from a woman who recounted her experience of injustice. “When my son was two,” she wrote, “his father called me from work one day to let me know he would not be coming home. He had found another place to live: with his girlfriend, as I discovered later.” For several years she avoided the pain by staying busy. But eventually it caught up to her. “I began to feel angry at having been stolen from. I was angry at having to do it all by myself—raising my child, bringing home the money to pay bills, making all the decisions. I felt used up, rejected, and discarded. I felt rage on behalf of my son, who was an innocent in all of this.”
The Undeniable Reality of Injustice
Eventually, each of us will experience painful consequences caused by the foolish or malicious choices that people make. Some injustice is obvious, such as rape, robbery, or murder. At other times, it may be less dramatic. A hardworking employee is passed over for promotion because she is a woman. A young athlete sits on the bench because his coach does not like him. These mundane cases of injustice can be especially difficult because the victims receive little public sympathy and have no recourse to justice.
The issue of injustice is not simply an academic question to me. I have experienced it firsthand, and it has taken everything in me to keep my spiritual equilibrium as a result. In the fall of 1991, a drunk driver lost control of his car and collided with our minivan, killing my mother, my wife, and one of my daughters. Because of a legal technicality, he was found “not guilty.” I spent months trying to make sense out of the injustice of it all. You can imagine my surprise when a friend of mine admonished me to think less about my experience and more about the sovereignty of God. “Eventually,” he said to me, “you will have to make peace with the sovereignty of God. Either God is in control, or He is not. You must decide which you believe is true.”
All of us must decide what to believe about the sovereignty of God. Our experience with painfully unfair situations makes that decision both relevant and difficult. What we decide will in large measure determine how we respond to the unjust circumstances that force the question upon us in the first place. Is God in control or not? If He is, then we can trust Him as He works out His redemptive purpose in our lives, even in the face of injustice. If He is not, then we should abandon faith and find our own way through the hard times of life. The choice is stark and simple. But the struggle we may go through to make a decision of such magnitude is anything but simple. My friend was therefore right. I had to decide what I believed about the sovereignty of God.
Presence and Purpose
The Bible is clear: God is sovereign. He is the one who created us, provides for us, and directs the course of our lives (Psalm 139). God sees all, knows all, transcends all. As finite creatures, we are bound by space and time. He is bound by neither. “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. . . . For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:2, 4).
If a single biblical story affirms God’s sovereignty, it is the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50). Joseph experienced terrible injustice. He was betrayed by his brothers, who sold him as a slave to a caravan of merchants traveling to Egypt. They in turn sold him to Potiphar, a member of Pharaoh’s court. Joseph served Potiphar well and won his trust. But Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. When Joseph resisted her advances, she accused him of attacking her. Joseph ended up in prison.
Eventually Joseph was released from prison. He was appointed second in command over all of Egypt because he correctly interpreted a dream that had troubled Pharaoh, a dream that foretold a seven-year famine. In addition to interpreting this dream, Joseph advised Pharaoh to establish a plan to avert the disaster. After Joseph’s appointment, he implemented a national project of storing surplus grain and then supervised the distribution of that grain when famine struck. The famine forced Joseph’s brothers to travel to Egypt to buy grain, where they were reunited and eventually reconciled. The story concludes with Joseph’s family settling and prospering in Egypt.
The account gives us two perspectives on the sovereignty of God. The author of the story provides the first perspective. Twice he writes, “The Lord was with Joseph.” Surprisingly, he makes the comment on two occasions when Joseph was the victim of gross injustice. The first occasion occurs just after Joseph was sold to Potiphar, the second just after Joseph was thrown into prison (Gen. 39:2, 21).
The author’s perspective was informed by his knowledge of how the story would end. He could write with accuracy and confidence that God was with Joseph in his darkest hour, though that did not appear to be the case. The author saw that God was working out a purpose that Joseph did not at the time understand.
Joseph himself provides the second perspective on God’s sovereignty. His comment to his brothers at the end of the story indicates that he believed God was with him, even after so much injustice. “You intended to harm me,” he said, “but God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
God’s Redemptive Sovereignty
As Joseph made a decision to believe, so must we. But what exactly should we believe about God’s sovereignty? Should we believe that it is cold, calculated, and machine-like? Or is God sovereign in the way a good writer is, who creates characters in a novel that face enormous messes but in the end find great happiness?
God’s sovereignty is not manipulative; it is redemptive. When God created the world, He called it good. He mourns the evil that ravages the world, and He plans to restore the world to its original goodness. It is as if the world is a masterpiece, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, upon which vandals have viciously painted graffiti. Now God, the artist, has decided to restore it to its original magnificence. God wants to redeem people so that His image, as reflected in Jesus Christ, is restored in them (Ro. 8:28–30, 2 Cor. 3:18). As a result, the entire universe will be set ablaze with His glory and holiness.
If God did not act in His sovereignty to redeem us, every human being on planet Earth would be doomed. If we were left to ourselves, imprisoned by our own sin, then we would be of all creatures the most to be pitied. There are many things we can do for ourselves, but salvation from sin is not one of them. Only God in His sovereignty can redeem us.
God has, in fact, already redeemed us in Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote, if any person is in Christ, that person is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus won our salvation through His sacrificial death and His bodily resurrection. He became sin for us so that we could become righteous like Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
Further, God is redeeming us every day by changing our lives. God takes the stuff of daily life and wields it as His tool to make us like Jesus. He uses the circumstances of everyday life to transform us. We can assume, then, that God in His sovereignty is always working in our lives. The tools He uses are immediately at hand—the relationships we have or lack, responsibilities we are assigned by choice or necessity, opportunities we are given, suffering we did not choose but must endure, problems we face, dilemmas we encounter. God uses these occurrences to perfect us. It is not in spite of, but by means of such life experiences that we grow into the fullness of Christ. Thus, the very circumstances that we blame for our misery are the things God uses to make us like Jesus. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.
We must learn to trust God, even when there seems to be little reason to do so. There may be times when the way God leads us can seem unjust. Take Abraham as an example. After waiting 25 years for a child, Abraham finally witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise. Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Isaac was God’s supreme gift to Abraham and Sarah. It seemed a cruel thing when God later commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son and heir, to God (Genesis 22). God seemed to be violating His promise and desecrating His gift, as if He had turned against Abraham. Abraham must have been utterly bewildered. Amazingly, he still obeyed. While journeying to the place of sacrifice, Isaac became curious. “Where is the sacrificial animal?” he asked his father. Abraham’s response is telling. “God will provide the sacrifice,” he replied. And God did. The book of Hebrews teaches that Abraham had such confidence in God that he believed God could raise Isaac from the dead.
Why this test? The text tells us that God wanted to know whether or not Abraham trusted Him. Abraham did not presume to know more or better than God. Neither should we. Again, it all comes down to a decision to believe.
God is sovereign and worthy of our trust. Complete trust in Him, however, does not eliminate the pain we feel in the midst of injustice. The darkness will still be dark; hardship will still be hard. It does us no good to think otherwise. If Jesus cried in anguish, so can we. However sovereign God is, injustice still hurts.
These seasons of suffering may raise difficult questions in our minds. It is entirely human and understandable to question God when we do not understand what He is doing in our lives, or to cry out in agony even if we do understand. Job, for example, was never faulted for questioning God; the book of Psalms contain many psalms of complaint (e.g., Psalm 88). Even Jesus asked in desperation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34).
The crucifixion of Christ is the quintessential example of the mysterious and complex way in which God works. It was obviously a horrible miscarriage of justice, and the people responsible for the deed were wrong to do it. Yet God used that unjust event to accomplish the salvation of the world.
It’s important to remember that belief in God’s sovereignty does not excuse evil or justify wrongdoing. Bad parents are still bad parents, though God will use bad parents in His sovereignty to make us better people. God uses injustice to accomplish His greater purposes. Yet the positive outcome of suffering unjustly does not nullify the painful nature of such experiences. God’s ability to accomplish His purposes through injustice does not erase the guilt of the one responsible for the suffering.
Nor does trusting in God’s sovereignty imply that we should never seek justice as a means of righting the wrongs done to others or even to us. It is possible and appropriate to pursue the two courses simultaneously.
On the one hand, we can and should trust that God is always working in our lives and cooperate with Him as He uses even injustice to transform us and advance His work in the world. Jesus commanded His disciples to absorb the wrong done to them and do good instead (Mt. 5:38–48). The Apostle Paul restated the principle by encouraging believers to overcome evil by doing good, leaving justice to the wrath of God (Ro. 12:17–21). Paul made it clear that believers belong to Christ and can, therefore, live in peaceful contentment, in all circumstances (Phil. 4:11–13).
On the other hand, we can also appeal to earthly institutions like the state to seek justice when we have been legitimately wronged. For example, Paul appealed to Caesar when he was falsely accused by the Jews and unjustly imprisoned by the Romans (Acts 25:10–12). Paul wrote Romans 13 to show that God establishes justice on earth, in part, through the state.
How can we live in such a tension? Say, for example, that I am treated unfairly by an employer. By faith I believe that God is sovereign. I look for signs of God’s gracious work in my life. I allow God to use the experience to change me for the better. At the same time, I recognize that what my employer did was wrong and that he should be held accountable. So I decide to appeal to a grievance committee to address the unjust way my employer has treated me. My submission to God, in other words, does not excuse the faults of my employer or prevent me from seeking justice through the appropriate channels of authority.
The Triumph of Redemption
Submission to the sovereignty of God, therefore, does not have to make us passive in the face of injustice, as if we were little more than victims. We should identify injustice and resist it as best we can, but always in a spirit of humility, contentment, and peace. For we know, whatever the outcome, that God is in control, that good will triumph over evil, and that God is working out His redemptive purpose in our lives. We do not have to get our own way. We do not have to win. In the end, whether justice prevails in our immediate circumstances or not, God’s sovereignty will triumph, and we will be redeemed.