“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
Charles Steinmetz was called the “Electrical Wizard” by his coworkers when he worked for General Electric in the early days of the 20th century. After he retired, his fellow engineers at GE were mystified by the breakdown of a complex of machines. After some futile attempts at repair, they invited Steinmetz to come in as a consultant and diagnose the problem. After surveying the machines for several minutes, he used a piece of chalk to place an “X” at one particular juncture of one of the machines. It turned out that this was the exact spot of the breakdown.
A few days later, Steinmetz sent his bill—for $10,000, a staggering amount considering the few minutes the job had taken. The engineers asked him if he could provide a breakdown of specific costs. Steinmetz complied, as follows:
“Making one cross mark…………$1.00
“Knowing where to put it……$9,999.00”
Knowing where to place the “X” is a much needed skill in our world. I think about Jonah the prophet in this regard. God called him to deliver a message of judgment to Israel’s despised enemies, the Assyrians. After initially trying to avoid God’s call, followed by some divine persuasion, Jonah went to Nineveh and declared the word of the Lord. To Jonah’s dismay, the entire city repented, turning from their evil ways! So God relented of his plans to bring calamity upon the city.
God’s change of plans angered Jonah, who told God, “…I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Essentially, Jonah says to God, “I knew you’d botch the job! You’re too indulgent of these wicked people!” Jonah is furious because of God’s “inability” to put the “X” in the right place, to mete out grace and judgment in the correct measure. But it turns out that Jonah is the one who doesn’t understand the heart of God.
Jonah understood the Scriptural teaching about justice and wanted judgment applied lavishly… to his enemies. But what he lacked was insight into God’s priorities when it comes to meting out divine justice and divine grace. The oft quoted confession that Jonah references, “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” affirms the priority of grace in all of God’s dealings with creation. God’s relationship with the world is not equal parts grace and wrath. While God will exercise judgment when need be, God is always willing to relent and show mercy upon the repentant. May we seek to mirror this divine priority of grace, not by ignoring God’s call to justice, but by understanding that the heart of God is toward the repentant.