Saturday, July 15, 2017

Justified and Vindicated

I’ve been studying the book of Romans with some friends, which has brought to mind the word “justify” and its various definitions. Theologically, the word means to be declared righteous before God. The mnemonic device I learned growing up was that being justified made it “just as if I” never sinned. I remember once looking at the keyboard on a digital typewriter (in pre-computer days) and seeing the “right justify” key, which would line up the text with the margin of the page. It struck me that what Jesus did for me was similar. My own righteousness couldn’t reach God’s standard, like unjustified text couldn’t reach the margin. I realized that Jesus was my “justify” key and that he could take what I offered him and fill in the gaps, so to speak, to make it line up with the standard of holiness I could never reach on my own. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it helped me appreciate being justified.

Ironically, the common usage of the word “justify” is almost the opposite of the theological one. Theologically speaking, justification starts with the truth that no one is fully righteous. In everyday usage, however, being justified involves a person being unjustly accused or doubted, then being shown to be in the right.

I find I need both kinds of justification. I’m certainly a sinner in need of great grace. I also find, however, that in specific situations, I long for someone to step in and defend me. In my last post, I asked God to vindicate me, which is a similar concept. Someone asked what I meant and I had trouble articulating it well. This is my attempt at a fuller answer.

I've learned that I feel beaten down, not only by things that people say directly to me, but things that people say about others with whom I identify. I suspect that we all have this tendency to some extent, but maybe some of us are more sensitive to it than others. Take, for example, what people say about other widows. Recently, within the span of a few days, I heard two different people make offhanded comments about widows they knew. The first commented that one seemed to be having a hard time. (Note to self – don’t share with anyone when you’re grieving). The second person commented that she was afraid another widow was too stoic and not allowing herself to mourn. (Note to self – make sure to share with everyone when you’re grieving.) 

A few days after I heard those comments I ran across a blog post by a widow defending a widower who had recently announced his engagement. (Don’t read it if it will bother you that the post contains both a Bible verse and the phrase “dear ignorant, judgmental a**holes.”)  The writer’s palpable anger, which was echoed in hundreds and hundreds of comments, reinforced the truth that when you attack one of us in this widowhood club, it feels like an attack on all of us.

The chronic illness club is another one I find myself a member of, and negative judgments about people who are ill pour down like rain. The list of accusations feels almost endless: people have made themselves sick, they remain sick because they are afraid or don’t really want to get well, they use their illnesses to manipulate people, they exaggerate their symptoms, they aren’t trying hard enough to heal, they aren’t smart enough to know the right treatments, and on and on it goes. In the Christian world other messages get piled on: they aren’t praying enough, they don’t have enough faith, they’re being punished for sin, they’ve let Satan gain a foothold in their life. There are also accusations that are specific to given conditions. People with chemical sensitivities are often freely ridiculed and maligned for things like wearing masks to protect themselves or asking for accommodations. Yesterday I read an article that used the word “tyrants” when referring to us.

I feel very grateful to live in the digital age, when information and connection is so easy to access. There’s some information, however, that I’m not sure I want to know. Blog and social media posts, along with their associated comments, pull back the curtain of denial and paint a stark and depressing picture of how judgmental and accusatory we all tend to be. I’m not saying anything new when I note how easy it is to type things online we would never say to someone’s face or in the physical presence of bystanders who might be sensitive to the message. I read things every day that make me sad and angry, and I don’t know what to do with those emotions. Sometimes people do say accusatory things directly to me, which is painful, but at least gives me the option of response. But what do I do with the anger I feel at the accusations of countless unnamed fellow humans who all seem to have an opinion about widows, women, those with low incomes, Christians, people over 50 and the chronically ill?

It’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter what other people think. There’s certainly some truth in that. At the end of the day, only God’s opinion really counts. But caring what people think also serves a certain purpose in society, helping people understand norms and promoting cohesion. It’s a natural human behavior. Biblical writers, especially psalmists, asked for vindication or justification frequently. Here are a few examples, taken from a variety of translations:

Psalm 7:8b – “Declare me righteous, O LORD, for I am innocent, O Most High!”

Psalm 26:1 – “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.”

Psalm 35:24 – “Declare me not guilty, O LORD my God, for you give justice. Don't let my enemies laugh about me in my troubles.”

Psalm 43:1 – “Declare me innocent, O God! Defend me against these ungodly people. Rescue me from these unjust liars.”

Psalm 82:3b – “Vindicate the oppressed and suffering.” (Another translation says “Justify the poor and the meek.”)

I believe that my anger is justified (there’s that word again), but it doesn’t feel especially helpful. As I work through this issue and try to process my feelings, I’ve found solace not only in realizing that Biblical writers shared the same desire to be defended from unfair judgments, but that God promises to do just that. This is my hope:

Isaiah 50:7-9a – Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like a stone, determined to do his will. And I know that I will not be put to shame. He who gives me justice is near. Who will dare to bring charges against me now? Where are my accusers? Let them appear! See, the Sovereign Lord is on my side! Who will declare me guilty?