“They did what was right in their own eyes.” It appears in scripture over and over. I used to gloss over this phrase, briefly imagining people doing terrible things while justifying their actions to themselves. I would imagine people behaving selfishly, hurting others, stealing, lying, cheating and worse. And, surely, these things did happen.
But it struck me that many who were “doing what was right in their own eyes” may have actually been trying to do good things. Service, generosity, philanthropy, even worship. Plenty of “good people” trying to do “good things”. But good intentions, as we know, can often pave the way to things and places we do not want. So what is the issue? There’s a big difference between what may look right from our perspective, and what God says is right. If we look to Judges where we see this phrase used, we find that a whole lot of problems arise when the people did what was right in their own eyes. Heartache, despair and destruction: the Israelites fell away from God, and are eventually taken away into captivity. All because they traded doing things God’s way for doing things the human way.
Sadly, the Israelites had what they needed to prevent this from happening. They had access to the Tabernacle, they had the priests, and they had the law. Though many had abandoned it and forgotten, it was not lost.
When we lose touch with God’s word, it becomes easy to lose touch with his character—which can lead to denying him in subtle ways. And, when we start denying God and his authority, humans and creation become the focus of what we elevate. This leads to humanist movements that start off with things that may seem reasonable, but quickly slide down the rabbit hole. Social justice divorced from the righteousness of God is rudderless and ultimately impotent. It is just another way we worship ourselves.
Am I saying that social justice movements in the church and in our communities are wrong? Absolutely not. What I am suggesting, however, is that our words and deeds need to be anchored in the Authority of God, and be offered in submission to him—even when it goes against the grain of whatever is currently popular in culture.
If we’re passionate about enacting God’s justice (social or otherwise) we need really know who he is.
In recent years I have seen a number of friends, acquaintances and public figures associated with the church make statements saying that they have decided to change their stance on one or more hot-topic issues (usually to do with sexuality). They make statements to the effect of “the more I study Jesus, the more I can’t reconcile myself to a doctrine of [fill in the blank]” that is associated with a traditional, conservative view of scripture. Many go on to say something like “I see Jesus, his love and compassion, and I can’t reconcile that with these other things [found in the Old Testament], so I feel I have to choose, and I choose Love”.
But the problem with this thinking is that Jesus isn’t the antithesis of the Old Testament God of Righteousness. He is the fulfillment and the Peacemaker that makes it possible for us to reconcile and realign with a Righteous God. He doesn’t undo or contradict what God set forth in earlier events. Do I agree that Jesus calls us to behave in a loving manner to those around us? Unquestionably. Do I agree that the message and ministry of Jesus conflicts with or voided the authority and righteousness that God the Father expressed in the Old Testament? Absolutely not.
We can’t march forward as agents of Jesus’ ministry when our words and actions deny the rest of God’s character. We cannot abandon the righteous authority of God the Father in favor of a pasteurized, self-serving doctrine of “love” that is no longer based on Biblical Truth.
Simply, there is no conflict between the ministry of Jesus and the character of God the Father. We are not being called to choose between these two images of God. It is a lie constructed to trap us with a choice that doesn’t actually exist. This trap would lead us into a rabbit hole of extremes: either an abandonment of sacrificial love that results in anger or resentment; or one that elevates humanism and social justice into idols that deny the authority of God. It doesn’t work to divorce the New Testament from the Old in order to make God more palatable. Jesus (whose love is being so heavily emphasized at the moment) is ONE with the Father who demonstrated his Righteous Authority repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. And, surprise, Jesus did it too. If we struggle to reconcile these two understandings of God’s character, the answer isn’t to abandon one or the other. We need to press in, and discover how they agree.
The tension we find ourselves in is to navigate the very narrow space between these two extremes. How do we love sacrificially without validating things that God has expressly put boundaries on? Inversely, how do we honor God on the tough subjects while still loving our neighbors as ourselves? We need to be weary of molding the church and our doctrines into what is “right in our own eyes.”