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The Need to Justify

In Eden, before sin changed everything, Adam and Eve knew only one heart condition. Their hearts were always and only at peace with the Creator. They also were at peace with his creation, and with each other. In absolute terms, everything was right in those relationships. God provided for their every need. They lacked nothing and desired nothing more than to be in their Creator’s favor and to share the joy of being in his presence and in each other’s company.

Then they fell into the abyss of sin, and we suddenly see a new human need emerge. For the first time, Adam and Eve struggled to justify their behavior.21 Something was telling them they must explain themselves and account for the choices they had made. First they hid. When that failed, Adam deferred to his nakedness as an excuse for hiding. Finally, they took turns playing the blame game. Adam blamed the woman. Eve claimed the serpent was her downfall. Their defense was hollow, feeble, and contrived. But their defense was also significant. Justifying disobedience would become a hallmark of every succeeding generation. All of humanity is now hardwired with the same moral circuitry for blaming others.22

We are accountable—to God, and to one another. A conscience, distorted by sin and quickened in the fall, still demands that we justify the immoral things we say and do. But making wrong behaviors right again is far beyond a sinner’s reach.

A heart at war always faces a great risk. The odds that we will despise the enemy, hate him, curse him, lie about him, and seek to destroy him are exceedingly high. One best-selling secular book about conflict says, “When I am seeing others crookedly, what I need in that moment is justification, and I’ll get it any way I can.”23 Even when the choice to engage is honorable and just, the engagement itself tends to lead us to embrace actions and behaviors that are not. The same source adds, “The more sure I am that I have been mistreated, the more likely I am to miss ways that I have mistreated others myself. My need for justification obscures the truth.”

Not so for a heart that is at peace.

To understand how this works, we need to take a closer look at the word justify. Picture a bricklayer, busily constructing a wall. A tautly stretched string marks a straight line for the bricklayer to follow. If his line of bricks does not match the line established by the string, he must find a way to justify it—to make it right again.

But what if the bricklayer is blind? Then it will be impossible for him to change a crooked wall back into a straight one.

The human inclination to fix the crooked line of sin by ourselves is a powerful internal influence, even when the goal is not at all realistic. Our view of the life we need to justify is blinded by sin. Left to our own efforts, that life is doomed to remaining crooked. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

When our hearts are at war, we are like the bricklayer. We instinctively look for ways to make our wrongs appear to be right—to justify our words and actions. In fact, we can’t stand living with ourselves until we can find ways to validate our behaviors.

For sinnerspeople for whom the truth is always a relative matter—there are a number of strategies that seem to suit our purposes. However, they really don’t justify anything. These strategies only leave the appearance of being justified. But for some of us that may be enough to satisfy the insatiable hunger.

One simple response is to pretend that the walls of our lives are perfectly straight, even when we know they are not. Or we could ignore the fact of God and try to believe that he doesn’t exist. Without God, it would only be necessary to pull the wool over the eyes of our neighbors, something most of us have been doing since long before the age of puberty.

Of course, there is a God; and he is very savvy about what goes on in our pretend lives. He does not buy the act. God knows a crooked line when he sees one.

If eliminating God seems a little extreme, maybe we can convince ourselves (and others) that he is no longer relevant or that he doesn’t really mean what he says. These strategies work if one can somehow ignore the eternal consequences of violating the boundaries that a loving God has set for us and our neighbors.24God fences us off from many dangers and pitfalls by placing the whole human race under the same laws.25 These are reasonable laws. They are just. Without them, a civil society could not last a day.

I may be able to justify my at-war words and actions by acting as if I am above the law. Then I am not required to answer for the bad choices I make. In the real world, even kings and princes are consigned to living under God’s law, though they may not always like it.

Have you ever tried using some of these strategies? They may work when we are trying to justify our actions to other people. They never work with God. While the need to be justified is true of every crooked behavior, it is especially true for those behaviors that occur when relationships turn sour.26

How We View Others

Both ways of being—at peace and at war—cast broad shadows on the way we view others. When I relate to another individual with a heart that is at peace, I see that person in a way similar to the way I see myself. I see him or her as a human being who has hopes, needs, cares, and dreams, just as I have. It takes a heart at peace to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

But when I relate to others with a heart that is inclined toward war, I see them as obstacles that stand in the way of my success. I see them as vehicles to be used and abused in order to achieve my own ends. When I approach a relationship with a heart at peace, I can see a potential partner in the other person, someone who is able to bring me added blessings. With a heart at war, I can only see someone who is irrelevant to the things that are important to me.

With a heart at war, I am inclined to view my enemy as an object. I may even imagine that my enemy is the devil incarnate. This explains why a Christian engaged in conflict may actually ask God to damn a fellow human being to hell.

When I view an enemy with a heart that is at peace, I can still see him or her as a human being. I can respect the person’s rights, name, reputation, life.

A Favorite Game

One of the most sinister strategies for justifying wrongful behaviors is a mental game that is prompted by the question, Who’s on top? The game board resembles a ladder. Every position on this ladderlike structure is relative to every other position. You can rise above another player’s position, or you can find yourself on a lower rung.

Of course, this is not really a game at all; it is a way of life—a mind-set that sinful humankind has devised in order to view others in a way that allows us to justify behaviors that are neither peaceful nor loving. But here’s the irony: The object of the game is not so much about striving for and attaining the ladder’s summit. The real object of the game is to justify the horrible things you did to judge and punish your opponents.

The players in my game of Who’s on Top? are there because I have relationships with them. You have your own game going, with a full complement of relationships that can at any time be made active or inactive according to the condition of your own heart. We’re at war with those we have activated. The rest are in a holding pattern. We will remain temporarily at peace with those in the holding tank until a time when being at war with them suits our own purposes. Some of my relationships will spend more active time on the game board than others. When they are active, I will despise them. And I will work very hard to judge them and punish them. That is how the game is played.

One other thing about this game: No matter where each player is positioned on the ladderlike structure, the potential is always there to find an advantage. If I can see myself as being better off than someone with whom I am at war, I will think of that person as insignificant, subhuman, and irrelevant. Because I am in a superior position, I will generally see myself as wise, right, and honest while my inferior appears foolish, wrong, and dishonest. In my superior position, I can also justify my impatience, disdain, and indifference toward my inferior. In short, I can treat that person as an object.

If, on the other hand, my position is inferior to my enemy’s, I can still rationalize my hostile behaviors. After all, such an enemy has probably gained higher rank and status by taking everything he or she has from me. And there’s little doubt that this was done in a dishonorable or dishonest manner. That explains why he or she is wealthier, more fortunate, more blessed than I am. From an inferior position, I will be inclined to view my enemy as privileged or advantaged. This gives rise to my feelings of jealousy, bitterness, helplessness, even depression. But it also provides the kind of justification I need to treat that individual as subhuman.

To play this game, you and I must be prepared to judge others relative to their social status, economic position, moral character, intellectual acuity, political ranking, communal standing, skill level, level of education, and a host of other criteria. Small wonder this game spawns cultural bias, racial bigotry, ethnic prejudice, gender chauvinism, intolerance, and all the other kinds of favoritism that falsely justify cruel and inhuman conduct!

The apostle James wrote with force and clarity about such games: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. . . . If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:1,8-10).

James later amplified his remarks, writing, “If you harbor bitter envy or selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:14-17).


For Thought and Discussion

• List some of the risks that are in play when we make the choice to be at war.

• Why does prejudice so often lead to conflict? How does personal prejudice obstruct, hinder, or undermine the gospel’s spread?

Describe some games you play when you are at war with others.

21 Genesis 3:7-13.

22 In A Commentary on Genesis 1–11, by Carl J. Lawrenz and John C. Jeske (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2004, pp. 141-143), we read, “Adam and Eve revealed their depraved condition. [They] vainly sought to hide from God, vainly sought to protect [themselves] from God’s just punishment with [their] own feeble and foolish efforts. Here is the beginning of the opinio legis, man’s vain thought of somehow rescuing and saving himself from God’s punishment. This opinion of the law has remained indelibly ingrained in natural man ever since. . . . Vainly [they] sought refuge in half-truths, deceit, and evasion. . . . What a disgraceful confession Adam made as he tried to blame others, to blame Eve, and ultimately to blame God himself! Where trust in God is gone, there is also no love of God; and where there is no love for God, real unselfish love for one’s neighbor also fades away.”

23 The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, The Arbinger Institute (n.p.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), p. 112.

24 Leviticus 5:17; Proverbs 11:19.

25 Exodus chapter 20.

26 Such behaviors are embraced in the last seven of God’s Ten Commandments. A quick review of the Second Table of the Law demonstrates how pervasive conflict really is. Serious conflict can grow out of the sins that any one of these last seven commandments addresses.

From A Heart at Peace © 2014 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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