Justice Is Written on Our Hearts

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It usually doesn’t take us very long to learn the rules of a new game, and it only takes us infinitesimally longer to determine that someone else is breaking them. As many do, my children have an exceptionally refined sense of the way things should be, an almost trigger instinct for justice. In The Justice Calling, authors Bethany Hoang and Kristen Johnson describe this innate logic as the knowledge that something is not right. “When we encounter . . . injustice,” they write, “we might have a deep, intuitive sense that this is not the way things are supposed to be.

“We feel the weight of injustice deep within us because the call of goodness is buried deep within us too.”

This idea is behind the next virtue that Paul mentions in Philippians 4: “whatever is just.” Something is “just” when it fulfills what it is supposed to do, when it is the way it is supposed to be. Throughout the Scripture, the concept of justice is tied closely to righteousness or, more literally, the “rightness” of something, with God’s nature as the standard of what is right. In fact, when God calls us to righteousness, He appeals to His own: “Be holy, because I am holy.”[1] This makes sense when you remember that human beings were created to reflect the glory of God. In order for “things to be the way they are supposed to be,” we must conduct ourselves in a way that is consistent with His nature—we must act like He acts and do what He does. Surprisingly, our shared identity as image bearers also explains why human beings throughout time and across cultures have held a common understanding of what is just and what is not. Our sense of justice feels innate because it is.

Despite our race, age, religion, or sexual or political identities, despite our personal likes and dislikes, we all have a basic sense of goodness that triggers a “THAT’S NOT FAIR! YOU CHEATED!” response when we suspect someone has trampled on it. This shared value system (sometimes called natural law) explains why human societies inevitably craft laws against murder and adultery, demand respect of elders and fulfillment of family duties, punish dishonesty, and encourage kindness and mercy.[2]

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis notes that this shared sense of justice “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments.”[3] So innate is our sense of how things should be that Paul calls it a law “written on their hearts,”[4] which works in tandem with our consciences to point us in the right direction. And Psalm 19 tells us that even the natural world testifies to God’s grand design in something as basic as the way the day turns to night and the night turns back today.

In other words, the way the world is constructed—the way we are constructed—is designed to reveal goodness to us. We can reject our consciences; we can actively pursue things that aren’t what they are supposed to be. But at some foundational level, we can all agree that certain things are good. The husband who selflessly cares for his wife when, after a lifetime of marriage, Alzheimer’s begins to steal her away from him. The young soldier who sacrifices himself to save his friends. The fragile, unspeakable joy of a baby entering the world. But when goodness is disrupted, we also recognize injustice.

We recognize the wrongness of a cheating spouse. We disdain the soldier who betrays his unit. We grieve the loss of miscarriage. We feel the weight of injustice deep within us because the call of goodness is buried deep within us too. And when we’re caught by forces that seem outside our control, when we experience injustice, we rage against the world. We cry and scream and flip the board, sending the pieces flying.

[1] 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7.

[2] Historians often note similarity between the Ten Commandments and other ancient legal codes, but rather than diminishing the significance of the Ten Commandments, the similarity reinforces the argument that these laws derive from something other than human culture or experience.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 43.

[4] Romans 2:14–15.

For Further Reading:

All That’s Good

by Hannah Anderson

Winner of the 2018 TGC Book Award for Christian Living “And God saw that it was good…” Look out over the world today, it seems a far cry...

book cover for All That’s Good