Saturday, August 23, 2008

Justice, Mercy and Humility: God's Prescription for Happiness

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 8A
Micah 6:8

Bob Rakestraw

The longer I live the more I am convinced that the happy life is the good life, and the good life is the happy life. Happiness and goodness are closely related, even though most people seem to pursue the former more than the latter. Perhaps because the word “goodness” has a moral connotation to it, and morality suggests restrictions, some tend to think that goodness may work against their pursuit of happiness and fun. But goodness, properly understood, is not a system of burdensome laws, but a quality of life that brings deep joy and hope—not only to oneself but to others as well.

The Path to Happiness

The path to happiness, stated in terms of everyday living, is to seek to be a benediction, or blessing, to every person with whom we come in touch. This path seems contrary to the popular idea of seeking one’s happiness by self-love, purchases, travel, exclusive relationships and accomplishments. There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with the items just mentioned, but when we give ourselves to the pursuit of happiness without desiring the will of God above all else, and without seeking to be a blessing to others, we will find not satisfaction but sorrow, not happiness but emptiness.

One way we can be certain that we are living as a benediction to others, is to focus on those scriptures that present a concise summary of God’s expectations, and then to concentrate on living in the way described there. One of the most clear and concise such Bible verses is Micah 6:8:

He has showed you, O [mortal], what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (NIV)

I have selected this scripture text as one of my all-time favorite Bible passages because it struck me forcefully over forty years ago when I was searching for a way to summarize the way I should live. I had already discovered the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40:

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He [Jesus] said to him [the lawyer asking the question], ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (NRSV)

As stated above, this scripture portion, given in similar form in Mark 12:31-32, came to me before Micah 6:8. When I found the latter text I now had one summary statement from the New Testament and one from the Old, each speaking very plainly and similarly about how God desires people to live. Love for God with all our being is another way of saying what Micah says: “to walk humbly with your God.” And to love one’s neighbor as oneself is another way of summarizing Micah’s words: “to act justly and to love mercy.”

The Important Background

One of the most important lessons I learned in my early years as a Christian is to look closely at the context of the Bible verse or verses I am studying, It does not satisfy the requirements of careful Bible study to simply glance at our text and then begin speaking of justice, mercy, and humility. We need to look, at least briefly, at the overall purpose of the Bible book, the writer, the date, the historical circumstances, the intended recipients, and the connection of the scripture passage with the preceding and following verses. It is also important to note the similarity of the text with other texts on the same topic throughout the Bible, as we drew attention to the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40. I do not intend to write about all of the above matters of Biblical interpretation just mentioned, but only those that have a bearing on Micah 6:8. But I always try to keep these background matters in mind as I write.

Reading through the book of Micah is an excellent way to see what the Lord is teaching his people—including us today. God is making accusations against his chosen people—both the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah. The prophet Micah, from southern Judah, prophesied between 750 and 686 B.C., and, like his contemporary Isaiah, both threatens punishment and promises justice for God’s people. Punishment is coming to them because of their idolatry, injustice, rebellion, witchcraft and empty ritual. Yet throughout the book, there are predictions of hope and deliverance—some of them very tenderly expressed—as well as prophecies of gloom and judgment.

The Threefold Way

The three virtues that summarize the good life in Micah 6:8—justice, mercy, and humility—are all pointed out by the prophet because they are in direct opposition to three specific evils rampant throughout the land: injustice, unkindness and pride. One of the best ways to understand what God means by justice, mercy and humility is to read the book of Micah while noting the sins for which Israel, Judah and the surrounding nations are being judged. In addition, being serious about purging the contemporary equivalents of these sins from our lives, while keeping before us the positive language of Micah 6:8, will lead us to a life of fulfillment and deep satisfaction.

To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God are the three qualities of the godly person’s life that summarize both the life of Jesus and the expected life of his followers. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, lead with increasing confidence and satisfaction to the truly happy life. Next time we will look more closely at justice, mercy and humility and try to give specific examples of these from everyday life.



"Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day."
~~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

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