We like God being compassionate, gracious, loving, faithful and forgiving. When we talk about God as judge, we don't like it. Why?
We like being our own judges. I like to have moral authority over you. When I catch you doing something I deem inappropriate, I have a feeling of power in condemning you. In power-hungry American culture today, we delight in ascribing to others' motives behind actions. Then we reinforce our moral superiority by condemning both actions and motives.
We dislike reality. Our culture message is "live your own life as you wish." Technology invites us to believe we can bend reality. I struggle with three realities that will not bend: my bathroom scales, my watch and the state trooper's radar gun. When one of these realities confronts me, I want to argue (note: doesn't work with troopers), I want to justify, I want to disbelieve. Reality does not change just because I wish.
We refuse responsibility. If I struggle with laziness, it's easy to blame someone else for my lack of motivation. If I gain weight, let me sue McDonalds for making food I decided to eat. If my kids are out of control, let me blame their teachers and school administrators. In Washington, D.C., when was the last time you heard a politician say, "We've got a problem, we created it, so let's fix it." It's easier to blame the other party (sometimes people in your own party) that accept responsibility.
We resist instruction. No serious person would propose a parent allow his or her small child to be self-directed. A parent's loving responsibility is to introduce the child to realities: hot stoves burn, cats do not like their tails to be tugged, texting and driving can kill you. So why would we think a God of love would not want to instruct his children, as a judge instructs a defendant?
We can't believe a God of love would judge. What we really mean to say is "We can't believe God would judge us." We all want God to judge evil-doers. We want God to judge terrorists. We want to see brutal dictators condemned. No one wants to live in a world where there is no standard of right and wrong. We simply do not wish to believe our evil is that evil.
If the monotheistic religions are correct, God made this world and by extension, all of us. Therefore, as creator, he has the right, the obligation to stay involved and judge this world. God's judgment preserves his created order. Granted, God allows a level of chaos and randomness in this world. This exists so humans can have freewill. But God holds people accountable for their decisions and choices. He does this because it is his right. He also does this because he is a god of love and has no wish for chaos to control his creation.
Once we accept God is judge, we face three choices. First, we can deny he is judge and deny he will hold us accountable for our lives. At death, we'll find out if we were right. Second, we can strive to be so good our failures will be wiped out. Third, we can come before the judge and ask for mercy.
When Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day, it was God's great sign that his courtroom would be a place of grace - if you wanted it.
Whether I like it or not, God will hold me accountable for my life. But thanks be to God, he will also extend mercy and grace.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor at Alice Drive Baptist Church.