The woman sitting across from me had requested this meeting urgently. "Unusual circumstances" she had said, and indeed they were.
She told her story hurriedly, anxious to pose the pressing question she brought with her. Unbelievably, her beloved son -- a young professional who was an up-and-comer in his field -- had been murdered, she explained, drowned and left for dead. To make matters worse, the two killers were still at large. "The men who did this have not been brought to justice, and they definitely committed this crime," she said. Then, after a beat, "I guess I came to ask you what I'm to do in this situation."
Her eyes trained themselves on mine. She had come to a pastor for input on God, and God is a God of justice, right? Surely she was supposed to right this wrong in defense of her innocent son.
I studied her determined face, then leaned forward in my chair. Slowly, cautiously, I said, "I know your motivations are pure, in that you want to see justice prevail. But my advice to you is that above all else, you carefully guard your heart."
After letting that comment fill the space between us, I reminded the grieving mom that at some point, God would, in fact, bring everything to justice, and that it was not always our responsibility to help him get that done. "You must believe that he will fulfill justice," I said, "in his own timing and in his own way. The bigger and more immediate challenge you face is ensuring that bitterness and rage are disallowed from taking root in your heart."
I can't imagine the pain of losing a child in such a vicious and violent way. I can't begin to comprehend the agony of then watching the killers walk away. But no matter what injustices we face in this world, our hearts remain ours to decide how we will respond -- and this mother was wrestling with what I call the Jonah Syndrome: craving justice most for others while what we crave most for ourselves is grace.
Jonah was a prophet in Israel thousands of years ago, but his story remains well-known today. He was minding his own business, living his everyday life, when God approached him with a mission. Jonah was to travel by boat to a secular town called Nineveh and deliver a message on God's behalf. "Repent, or judgment is coming," he was to tell them. "In 40 days, your city will be overthrown." And tell them, he did. He took a detour through the belly of a very large fish, but eventually he got the job done.
The people of Nineveh were wicked folks, and Jonah agreed with God that they should be wiped from the face of the earth. But to Jonah's immense disappointment, God relented and spared them instead.
"Repent, or judgment is coming!" Jonah had cried. To his surprise, they did repent.
Jonah climbed to the top of a nearby hill and looked down on the city whose once-deviant leaders were now desperately seeking God. Wearing sack cloths and ashes, they begged God to change their hearts. All the while, Jonah looked on in disbelief. Where was the justice they so deserved?
He looked heavenward and said to God, "I knew it! I knew you were going to have mercy on this people and not do what you said you would do. I did my part. I came all the way here and told them what you said to say. You, on the other hand, promised judgment and justice, and now you're just sitting there, letting them repent! These people deserve your strongest wrath, not the gift of a brand-new start."
We crave justice most for others while what we crave most for ourselves is grace.
This is a excerpt from my new book 'Sons and Daughters: Spiritual Orphans Finding Our Way Home.'