Thumping heartbeat, cold sweats and dread accompany the use of the word “judgment.” Well, for me, anyway. I grew up terrified of hell. My pursuit of God in my elementary school years stemmed mainly from the fear of landing up in the place of fire and brimstone and bottomless pits. I saw judgment through the lens of terror and never feeling adequate in God’s eyes.
Then in the last few years as I’ve been reading the Old Testament prophets (like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and Malachi), I see judgment differently. What if judgment wasn’t a bad thing, but a good thing? What if it wasn’t something to dread, but something to be excited about?
What if the point of judgment is to send us running toward God, rather than fleeing? What if there’s actually hope in knowing that God sees and God will hold us accountable? What if judgment is not as much about fear of hell and punishment, but hope that God sees? Hope that God is powerful enough to exercise justice. Hope that God still cares enough about us, enough about this messed up world, that God hasn’t given up on it or us yet. Hope that humanity hasn’t ultimately been abandoned by God.
Will judgment be painful? Quite possibly — particularly for me as a middle class white American. Having a mirror held up to my flaws and brokenness never feels good, much less when it’s God’s vision of me. I’m not as good as I’d like to think that I am. At the same time, I’m also not as shameful as my inner anxiety monster likes to paint me either. I am loved. In my disasters and my brokenness, I am not abandoned. I am not solely the ugliest version of myself.
Still, being confronted with our own evil is uncomfortable at best. Having God reveal my faults — like me looking in the mirror in the morning and seeing pesky chin whiskers, pimples and jagged scars — feels embarrassing at best and horrifying at worst. My faults and evils are serious things to wrestle with and acknowledge. Judgment reminds us of this: that our actions and attitudes matter.
Who can stand tall before God? No one. I sometimes talk a big game before God when I’m angry and when life makes no sense — like when the ectopic pregnancy happened or in the middle of the infertility drama. I’m a little less arrogant before God in our conversations these days. God’s pretty good about showing up and reminding me that He Is Who He Is and I am not Him. Those encounters usually leave me feeling pretty small. But, I also wouldn’t trade those conversations; I learned how to trust God in those toe-to-toe wrestling matches and honest moments. I brought my hurt and frustration to God, instead of stuffing resentment of God all the way down to my toes.
And even though we cannot stand tall before God, God still longs for us come to Him. Come back. Return from your destructive ways. Come home to Me. This is not a small thing, nor something to take for granted. God’s grace is costly; Jesus’ life and death is not something to carry lightly.
Will judgment change us? Most likely. But, what if all this is a good thing, even if it brings pain initially?
What if the point of judgment is not simply a destination — heaven or hell? What if the point of judgment is actually bigger? Maybe we miss the point of what God’s actually up to in the world when we’re heaven-or-hell oriented. If all we seek is to do enough to avoid hell, we end up in a conundrum. We’re trying to earn God’s favor and grace, and then, we lose sight of the hope in God’s judgment. We end up missing the point of what Jesus is trying to do in us and in the world.
Judgment means God’s restoring the world. God is setting things to rights. God has heard the cries of the broken, the marginalized, the excluded. God has taken up the cause of the trampled, the wounded, the victimized. This is good news. Justice flows like a mighty flowing river, instead of withering up in a dry and barren riverbed.
What if judgment is about restoring us to God and others, rather than mere retribution for our actions? God desires our restoration. God wants us to run to Jesus and to allow Jesus to permeate our hearts and minds, so that we become people who love as Jesus does. Lovers of God. Lovers of people. Lovers of justice. Lovers of mercy.
What struck me in reading Malachi 3 this morning is how much God takes responsibility for changing humans. Even as God wants us to own and acknowledge our brokenness and the way we’ve damaged others and ourselves — God takes ownership for molding us and transforming us. Humans don’t own the transformation process. We place ourselves in a disposition to be molded, but the refinement comes from God.
In Malachi 3, the one that God sends will do the purifying. The priests don’t do this themselves or for the people — rather the one that God sends brings the transformation. This doesn’t mean our participation isn’t required, but it does mean that maybe we can relax into the process. Rather than striving and trying to earn God’s favor, maybe we learn to lean into the molding as God’s embrace of us.
We rest in trust of God’s work in our lives — even in the place of crucible refinement. Transformation is not about holy merit badges, or earning God’s favor or love. It’s about our restoration, our healing. Will we trust that God is working toward our healing — even as the world seems to crumble around us?
Even as the prophets, including Malachi, are full of war, destruction and despair, they are also poignantly filled with hope. God sees the poor, the oppressed, the widow and orphan, and He desires justice for them. God holds the powers that be accountable. And the goal in judgment is to urge people toward repentance. Turn back, so that these awful things might be avoided. And even though judgment and destruction came, doom was not God’s last word. God promises restoration, hope and peace: a future that will be brighter than the past and present. God will restore and renew. God will ultimately keep His promises, in spite of humans breaking theirs. Though darkness falls, dawn will break. Light will return.
The real point of judgment and grace is not a “get out of hell free” card, but a transformed life. It’s not simply that our failings are covered by Jesus’ blood, but that the Spirit hopefully begins to transform us into people who don’t continue to leave a swath of heavy damage in our wake. We become people of repentance — people who have turned from their sins. We become people who learn to love God and love others like Jesus does. Does it mean we get it right 100% of the time? No. But, we hope we’re on the journey to becoming the best possible version of ourselves.