This question goes to the very nature and character of God. Why, if God is loving and merciful, is he not be more tolerant and accepting?
The Home Office has a motto, used on its stationery, “creating a free, just and tolerant society” but is it not entirely possible that tolerance can become the enemy of freedom and justice?
Tolerance is regarded as a positive virtue in Western society, yet the word is often still used in a negative sense (e.g. telling someone that their cooking, or company, was “tolerable” is not likely to be seen as a compliment!). Tolerating someone implies that you hold yourself superior to them. You cannot tolerate someone and disagree with them but you can respect someone and disagree with them. The old mediaeval idea of defending someone’s right to disagree with you is much closer to “respect” than “tolerance.”
Justice involves defending what is right and thereby refusing to tolerate what is wrong.
How then can a God of love and compassion also be a God of justice?
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he loves her against his judgement and better character, and is shocked when she is insulted by this. We live in a world where people often project a better image of themselves than they really are and so end up not knowing true love because other people fall in love with the image and not the real them. True love can only exist in the presence of true judgement.
This is also seen in a quotation from a Black Eyed Peas song, “If you’ve never known truth, you’ve never known love.” God’s love is meaningful because God has a true judgement of us – he knows what we’re really like.
To act with compassion is to make a moral judgement about something and be moved in the depths of our being to do something about it. If we are not moved in this way, or don’t act, then we do not have true compassion, only moralism, yet we can’t have true compassion in this sense without the moral judgement. God, who passes judgement on our hearts, also has true compassion for us.
How then is it fair that God must sacrifice his Son in order to have mercy on us?
Mercy always comes at the expense of justice. How then can God be both merciful and just? The answer is that God exercises his mercy through his justice, by fulfilling the law on our behalf and suffering the punishment of his justice on our behalf so that justice can be upheld and mercy extended to us.
But isn’t God’s judgement a massive overreaction to our sin?
There is evidence to indicate that more people are sold into slavery via sex trafficking in modern Britain than were enslaved when the slave trade was “abolished” in the 19th century. Whereas earlier movements fought against treating people as objects, we now live in a society where people are encouraged to treat themselves as objects (e.g. we “market” ourselves). The reason why God is so angry at sin is that sin dehumanises us, destroying our capacity to relate to him and to each other.
What is the appropriate emotional response to sex trafficking? God’s wrath at our sin is the appropriate emotional response to our sin.
Isaiah 42: 1-4. God’s justice is described in terms of repairing bruised reeds and not quenching dimly burning wicks. This passage was written in southern Iraq where the marshes produce strong reeds (strong enough to build houses with, unless bruised) to a Jewish community who were not permitted even to snuff out wicks on the Sabbath (dangerous if you live in a reed house!). God is telling us through this passage that his justice will not discard those who are broken from the outside or exhausted from the inside.
Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the church to return to true radical justice and love from his cell in Birmingham, Alabama. The modern church too needs to regain its compassion.