How Are We Supposed to Define Justice?

Scales of justice

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

What does the Lord require of you? To do justice. 

This is a simple directive. However, I have found justice to be a controversial word in conversations between Christians. Perhaps it is due to the current political climate. Or perhaps we just don’t have the word defined properly. But we need to define it properly, so that we can obey God’s commands with confidence, no matter what culture, time, or place we are in. So, what does it mean to "do justice"?

One aspect of justice is retribution, which aligns closely with fairness and rightness (Proverbs 24:24-25). The guilty should be punished. The innocent should go free. This makes sense to most people. It’s what we think of when we think of “justice." We can easily visualize a judge in a courtroom enacting justice in this way. Further, because God is just, and we are made in his image, we are often deeply bothered when we witness injustice. That discomfort is good, because we are reflecting God in our desire for justice, fairness, and rightness. 

But if we leave our definition of Biblical justice there, it remains seriously lacking. Yes, there is a retributive element to justice, but there is also holistic piece to justice that calls us to action (Job 31:13-28). God has given us a responsibility to the poor, the orphan, the widow, the hungry, and the naked; and our responsibility is more than to not hurt or abuse them. Our responsibility is to actively do right by them—to clothe them, feed them, and care for them. God has called his people to do justice by engaging the injustices of the world, bringing rightness to the wrongs that exist (James 1:27). This is a fuller picture of justice. 

When God sees injustice and brokenness in the world, he is grieved. He is not indifferent to the pain of his creation (Psalm 34:18) Likewise, if we are his people, we should also be moved by injustice. We cannot ignore the brokenness around us. We cannot be content with a mere retributive definition of justice. When we respond holistically to injustice, we show our love for God (Matthew 25:40). 

The world cannot comprehend Biblical justice. Sinful people seek to get more than their fair share. They cannot fathom the radical generosity that God requires of His people (1 Corinthians 2:14). When we pursue Biblical justice, we pave the way for God’s Kingdom. We point to a time when perfect justice will exist. We look forward to the time when God will, in his justice, restore all things. 

God has called us to do justice. As His people, we are compelled to fully pursue obedience to Him because it is right, because it shows that we are His, and because He has said that it is good. 

Reflection Questions

  • What injustices have you witnessed or experienced that weigh heavily on you, in your personal life, work, culture, or the world?

  • Imagine how God feels in response to these injustices. Imagine how he can and will right these wrongs one day. Pray for God to bring justice to these specific situations. Ask Him to show you how you can participate in bringing about justice in these areas. 

  • Ask God to show you where you have grown complacent with injustice. Ask him to soften your heart and to believe that God will restore the world’s brokenness.