Recently, after giving a talk, I was confronted by an angry man who accused me of being soft on God's judgment and justice. "I cannot accept what you say," he declared bitterly. "There's so much evil in the world and so many people suffering from other people's sins that there must be retribution, some justice. Don't tell me that people who do these things : from molesting children to ignoring all morality : are going to heaven! What would that say about God's justice?"
I don't deny the existence of hell or the importance of God's judgment, but the itch to see other people suffer retribution reveals things about ourselves that we might not want to admit. At least we're in good company: the prophet Isaiah was no different. For him it was not enough that the Messiah should usher in heaven for good people; Isaiah also felt there also should be a "day of vengeance" on the bad (Isaiah 61:2). Too many of us need to see punishment befall the wicked. It's not enough that good people should be rewarded. No, the bad must also be punished. We disagree on what constitutes sinfulness and wickedness, but we agree that it must be punished.
This desire for "justice" is not spiritually healthy. It speaks loudly about frustration and bitterness within us. All that worry that someone might be getting away with something, and all that anxiety that God might not be an exacting judge, suggest that we : much like the older brother of the prodigal son : might be doing things correctly and yet be missing something important within ourselves. We are dutiful and moral, but still bitter underneath and unable to join the celebration. Everything about is ritually correct, but we lack genuine warmth and compassion of heart.
Julian of Norwich described God this way: "Completely relaxed and courteous, He himself was the happiness and peace of his dearest friends, his beautiful face radiating measureless love as a marvelous symphony." That is one of the better written descriptions of God, but it makes for a painful meditation: Too often, too many of us, far from basking in gratitude in the beautiful symphony of "relaxed, measureless love" and infinite forgiveness that make up heaven, feel instead the self-pity, anger and inability to let bitterness go that was felt by the older brother of the prodigal son. We are inside the banquet room surrounded by radiance and joy; yet we are unhappy, pouting, waiting for God to try to coax us (as did the prodigal's father) beyond our sense of having been cheated. We too often entertain such feelings. We protest our right to feel unhappy and diappointed, and we demand a day of reckoning for evil to be punished.
Alice Miller, the Swiss psychologist, suggests that as we mature in age and grace, our task is to come to terms with the easily recognizable fact that life is not fair. We need to grieve, she says. Otherwise the bitterness and anger that come from our bad choices, our broken dreams and misfortunes, will overwhelm us with a nagging sense of life's unfairness. Her formula for health is simple: Since life is unfair, don't try to escape the hurts. You're already suffering the hurts. Accept them. Grieve them. Then move on to rejoin the dance. In the end, it's mostly because we're wounded and bitter that we worry about God's justice : that it might be too lenient, that bad people might not be fully punished. But we should worry less about that and worry more about our own unwillingness to forgive, to let go of our hurts, to delight in life's blessings, to admire others, to celebrate and join in the dance.
Perhaps like the older brother, we never really listened to the gentle words spoken by his father: "My child, you have always been with me and everything I have is yours; but we : you and I : need to be happy. We need to dance and celebrate because your younger brother was dead and has come back to life!"