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Formation and Justice in Micah 6:8
Micah’s three-pronged approach reveals that social justice cannot be done without simultaneously caring for the condition of one’s heart.
He has told you, O mortal, 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 appears to have a few things motivating him: a strong ache for societal justice; a critique of pietistic religion expressed in mere offerings; and a prophetic call for Israel to keep the demands of her covenant with Yahweh. Micah was dealing with a people who would offer everything except what alone God asked for, their heart, its love and obedience…they refused to live by a faith that risks itself in doing justice.
Bruce Waltke, in his Commentary on Micah, shows how Micah was insisting that a person who does not practice mercy and justice in covenant solidarity with one’s fellow human beings has never participated in the covenant of grace.
Micah’s well-known thoughts give me a vision that God’s people can walk, chew gum, and naturally swing their arms all at the same time. An individual life can—and is indeed required—to engage in a three-part simultaneity: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.
As I sit with the text for a bit, a few lovely thoughts emerge which give us a vision for one, whole life formed in peace for justice.
The text names three actions that manifest the good God intended to be achieved through God’s covenanted and Spirit-filled people:
1) DO JUSTICE.
Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom and to give it back, thus delivering the oppressed from their oppression. It means to return to those who have had things stolen from them: life, freedom, agency, and power. Justice calls for restoring identity, peace and quiet, dignity, security, etc. It is a reordering of reality such that victims of injustice are made whole again in a dynamic, transformative manner.
To act in these ways, we must seek the reformation of our hearts away from fear, consumerism, insecurity, and instinctually unfair, angry judgments. Many of us will be summoned to courage, to acknowledge that which has been purposely or inadvertently repressed.
2) LOVE KINDNESS.
Yahweh’s covenant love was tender but tenacious; fierce and intensely determined. This is the posture given us for social engagement.
While feelings of empathy and compassion are obviously commendable, the command here is not so much to feel something about hesed/mercy. Rather, the command to love hesed is an appeal to move from indifference to engaging one’s will, desires, and spiritual motivations so that they would animate mercy and justice. It implies providing or protecting space in which the good can occur. It connotes a tight connection between the affections of the heart (the inner person) and one’s bodily action in the world. Love is a doing word pointing toward a respectful, faithful, and generous keeping of covenant with God. Loving and doing mercy is natural when it is the overflow of cherishing God’s work on the earth and treasuring the oppressed.
3) WALK HUMBLY.
Walking points to one’s whole manner of being in the world—the way one carries oneself, and one’s mode or style of living. Humility and meekness are the bent of the heart that underlies practices of mercy and justice.
This is where formation in Christlikeness, his kingdom message and doing justice come together in sweet harmony, in one holistic life.
We cannot let justice be owned, shaped or have its outcomes defined by partisan politics. Neither should current political quarreling shut us down. Isaiah 61:8 gives a clear basis for working for justice: For I, the Lord, love justice. Justice is a biblical issue.
Given that is the case of things, what manner of being, what sort of person best does justice to justice? The great Christian masters on justice agree that godly ends must employ godly means. On Micah’s terms, this means that in order to do justice to justice we need to simultaneously love mercy and walk humbly.
Micah’s three-pronged approach reveals that social justice cannot be done without simultaneously caring for the condition of one’s heart. I have observed many cases in my long career of justice workers getting burned out by perfectionism, by not accepting limitations and trying to do too much; by becoming rigid, being rude to those who don’t see what they see or who don’t live up to their standards; acting unkind, feeling unaccepted, working in fear-based ways, or by being overly bound up in partisan politics, or being judgmental. Richard Foster said, “Service that is duty-motivated breeds death. Service that flows out of our inward person is life, joy, and peace.”
In Jesus’ terms, the core basis of justice is to love our neighbors and our enemies and to practice the Golden Rule. In the Pauline vision of ethics for the people of God, we are to seek justice in ways that let our gentleness (considerateness, reasonableness, moderation) be known to all (Philippians 4:5).
We do justice best as we invite the Spirit to work his fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22). Paul’s vision was that the Church would execute on its call to do justice with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2,3).
Those qualities of being make for the inner movement within our souls from which comes deeds of kindness, generosity, and justice. We want to replace the legalistic “I ought to” or “I should do” with an overflow of a heart animated by “I want to” and “I get to” use my creative gifts for the sake of liberating others.
The lesson that is deepening in me is this: spiritual formation is greatly deepened in the midst of seeking justice and peace. As Foster put it: Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service.
A proper heart-ethic within must be accompanied by action without. Working from a peaceful soul, disciples of Jesus live with an others-oriented love in our hearts and a towel in our hands. As James puts it: Faith without works is dead. Paul insists that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. This is the vision of practical obedience to Jesus that takes us outward beyond our fears, our doubts regarding our ability to make a difference, our self-focus, or our needs.
Transformation into Christlikeness, with its attendant peace, is a good life—it is a light burden. Jesus stands before us with an invitation: lay down the inferior, enslaved ways of being human and pick up new life in him as his follower, learning to live our lives as he would were he in our place. If we can imagine this, we will have a sufficient imagination for good religion, for freedom, for love, for peace.
And as we are formed into the likeness of Christ, we progressively share in God’s affection and love for others. We grow in kind-heartedness toward the other. We empathize with, pray for, and work on behalf of others in a heart-renovated, self-sacrificing manner.
Freed from the drudgery of fear, we come to love others in a joy‐filled way. We find our hearts enlarged toward others. As we gently work our way to stillness of soul, tranquility of heart, lightness of disposition, and peace overflowing, we become human as God intended: lovers, willing the good of all.
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