Updated: Feb 6, 2021
If life were a superhero movie, our goal as the obvious heroes would be to destroy all the villains. If we could just get rid of all the bad guys, life would be grand. But if the paradox is true that all people were created in God’s image and yet all people are capable of evil, it cannot be that simple.
I don’t believe that destruction is ever God’s end goal. The destruction of a person who has committed evil is not victory to God. If he is the Father and Creator of all, it does not make sense that he would rejoice when one of his children follows a path of devastation all the way to ruin. As a parent myself, I could imagine the utter heartbreak of that.
God desires restoration. We see it in the story of Israel as they continue to turn away from God, turn to idols, and oppress people. The prophets repeatedly declare God’s anger over the evil and injustice, and there are severe consequences that Israel has to face for their actions, but God always calls them back. He continues to remind them that if they will just recognize their brokenness, confess their wrongdoing, and turn back to God that he will have mercy on them. And this mercy isn’t available only to God’s chosen people. God’s mercy extends to all people, if they would just acknowledge him and turn from their evil ways.
Let’s look at the story of Jonah. If you grew up in the church, you probably know about Jonah and the whale (or big fish), but there is so much more to this story than just Jonah disobeying God and then being rescued in the most unconventional way. God’s call on Jonah was to take a message of judgment to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. God had seen the wickedness of the people of Nineveh, who were known for their brutal and inhumane practices against the people they ruled over, which included Israel. God was not going to let this go on. Jonah didn’t want the job that God had given him, but when he finally made it to Nineveh to warn them of their impending doom, the people of Nineveh believed and repented.
Jonah 3:10 tells us,
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
God’s goal all along was not destruction. His goal was an end to the wickedness and freedom for those who were oppressed. His goal was restoration. Though God’s anger flared up against Nineveh for their evil ways, his true desire was for them to be restored to the people who were made in his image. Jonah wasn’t happy about this because he thought the “bad guys” should be destroyed. He wanted God’s mercy for himself but destruction for his enemies.
Jonah said to God,
I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. – Jonah 4:2b
Jonah knew God’s character and his love for all, but he thought there should be limits to God’s love. If I’m honest, I sometimes feel the same way. I really like the idea of God’s mercy for me, but in my thirst for justice, I want God’s wrath for those I deem as evil and unworthy. The problem with that is that I don’t get to decide who is worthy of love and mercy and who is not.
The story of Jonah ends with these words from God…
Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left? – Jonah 4:11
God’s love extends beyond the boundaries that we create and the limits that we want to justify. No matter what evil a person has committed or how far they have strayed from the way of life that God calls us to, his love remains. He continues to uphold the humanity of every individual. God, as a good Father, can look past the poor choices and bad behavior and see that child that he created with great intention. He can look past the brute exterior and see the lost soul. He can look past the wickedness and see the brokenness. And it grieves him as it would any loving parent.
God’s compassion and mercy do not make him weak or naïve but instead require a great deal of strength and wisdom. And to be clear, God may be slow to anger, but he does get angry. God’s fury burns when he sees injustice, and each one of us should fear the consequences we may receive when we are the responsible party.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
– Nahum 1:2-3
These words were written in judgment decreed against Nineveh. Though God saved the people of Nineveh who lived during Jonah’s time, the people who lived in that city 150 years later were not so fortunate. The next generation returned to the evil ways of their ancestors, and there came a point when God knew that no matter how much mercy he extended, restoration was not going to come. He could not let the oppression of his people continue, so destruction came for the people living in Nineveh at that time. But once again, we cannot conclude that God celebrated a victory. If he desired destruction, there would not have been so many chances for repentance. We cannot choose to champion God’s wrath but ignore his mercy.
So where does this leave us? What are we to do when we see evil in this world? We can and should feel anger when we see injustice. We should call out the evil that we see and stand up against it. There are times when harsh punishments are required. But the intention behind all that should still be to bring about restoration. We must be people who continue to uphold the humanity of others, even when those others have not done the same. We must recognize the depth of mercy that we have received and trust in the transforming power of God’s grace. We must work toward repentance, reconciliation, and reparation rather than just retribution. And if restoration does not come, even for the oppressors, we should lament rather than celebrate. We should lament any destruction that we see.
God loves the oppressed and the oppressor. I don’t know about you but that makes me uncomfortable. I feel the tension even as I write these words because there are people who seem just plain evil. Right now in our world and in our country, there are people who are enemies of God because they are crushing the image of God in others. I want to consider them the “bad guys,” and I want them to be punished for the evil they have committed. They seem too far gone for any hope of restoration, and honestly I don’t think they deserve forgiveness anyway. BUT I keep coming back to all the times in the Bible where God’s wrath was turned away as people repented. I think of Paul, who hunted down and murdered Jesus’ followers, until he encountered Jesus and then became one of the most influential leaders for those same people who had once been his victims. I think of Jesus asking God to forgive the very people who were killing him unjustly.
I also think of my children. There is nothing my children could do to change my love for them. I will do everything in my power to make sure that my children do not become the type of people who would oppress others in any way. But what if they did? What if my child became an evil oppressor? I don’t think that I would ever give up hope for their restoration. I don’t think that I would ever wish for their damnation. I don’t think I could ever celebrate if their evil actions led to their destruction. So if God is the Father of all, and a perfect Father at that, He will never stop loving those he has created. He will never feel good about their destruction.
God’s mission and desire has always been to restore all that is broken and lost. If we want to be part of God’s Kingdom, we must also seek restoration rather than destruction.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:21
Is there tension that you feel between the truth of the gospel and your human desire for justice?
Is there anyone or any situation that you consider beyond the hope of restoration?
Ask God to help you imagine what true restoration could look like, and begin to pray toward that end.