Can Justice Grieve the Spirit?: Disentangling Idolatry from Justice

Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering—who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will make the  greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good… He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. 

Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life (172) 

Today’s Gospel Issue: Justice

Older evangelicals will remember the church wide focus on end-time theology[1] from the 1970’s to early 2000’s. It wasn’t simply a byword among Christians—hundreds of books were published, thousands of sermons were given, Sunday schools were enthralled, and many people recognized it as an issue that determined your eternal destiny: whether you were “in” or whether you were “out” of Christendom. The pendulum has swung—and today, the “otherworldly” focus has changed to the present.[2] For younger evangelicals, seeking justice has become the new demarcation line of orthodox belief and practice.  

       Ask any young evangelical to define the gospel, and you’ll most likely hear a social-impact driven message where Jesus’ life and resurrection testify less to salvation and more to the culture changing example of Jesus’ hands and feet, the overturning of societal norms and the restoration of human dignity, equality, and opportunity. With a renewed focus on sprouting spiritual fruit, these evangelicals are acting on their prayers in and outside the church. In other words, the Gospel is inherently justice oriented.

       The ancients often remarked that each generation is tempted toward “modern hubris”. That is, each generation will seek to pride themselves on being distinctive from their parents and those who came before them. Their lifestyles, their priorities, their gains—are all unique and even superior.

       As this article will argue, the pursuit of justice has become—for me and my generation, a form of modern hubris. Our modern conception of doing justice is problematic because it hasn’t been defined by the self-giving rooted in Jesus’ Gospel. Rather, seeking justice has become a cloak for human pride and an extra-biblical sense of meaning in life. Our mission-driven age craves the attention that comes with helping others, without the discipline to serve others in the ways that are most helpful: the mundane and often unnoticed spaces of life. My purpose in writing is to challenge the entanglement of justice and idolatry, calling us to a higher standard for life in community.

The Dangers of Idolatrous Justice

       As in many topics of theology, the Church will often pride itself as remaining fixated upon what is eternally true, not being bound up with the distracting priorities of the world. Yet, if the last few years have taught the American Church anything, it is that we are not isolated from the events that happen outside our sanctuaries.
When our local, state, or national communities wrestle with the problems of homelessness, education, sustainability, immigration, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual abuse, gun violence, and racism—the church feels this pressure. It wants to meaningfully respond as a force for good within the community. We think to ourselves, “The Gospel must have something to say about this issue!” Whether we like it or not, the nation’s conversations often become our conversations and its challenges our challenges.

       Here’s an example. After the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that followed during the summer of 2020, believers and unbelievers alike responded to bring awareness of the racism within America. With the aspiration of beginning to resolve these longstanding problems, people joined by protesting, placing yard signs in their windows and yards, publishing social media posts, and many donated money to nonprofits. All this activity sought to demonstrate tangible support for Black Americans.

       For many in my generation, these events serve as the archetypical example of what it means to pursue justice. We want to love the needy and so leap to the defense of the less fortunate. We speak truth to power and use our influence for good. This example is important for us to consider because just a year and a half after the nation wide protests, the American attention span has waned and is again looking for a new and fresh preoccupation. In this lies the danger of American “justice”.  

       The American “justice” problem is what nonprofit leaders have observed for years: few people are willing to invest in a social movement’s long-term success; many are only present while the issue is a cultural fad. In other words, the church and its neighbors become caught up in the grand chorus of national reckoning, only to have its interest in a topic of justice diminish as the summer’s warmth changes to winter chills. The awakening of a population to an issue is important, but our social activism can be unproductive if it is not disciplined by the Gospel. 

       In the present, the pursuit of justice we have adopted is a form of idolatry. We care about issues when they speak to us—when they are before us—when our culture pressures us to make a stand. But, once the priorities change and the spotlights have shifted to floodlights, we move on to something more visible. In other words, we pursue justice for the payoff, not sticking around when the results are distant. 

       It is far easier to feel proud from sharing our opinions in public spaces than working in the difficult complexity of people’s lives. Instead of doing the hard work of volunteering with nonprofits, learning the names of our neighbors, and making consistent donations to organizations that are doing good work for years (not months), we take the easy road by putting signs in our yards and supporting or condemning others on social media.

There may be a place for yard signs and social-media posts, but these should not become our primary means of engaging in justice. Biblical justice is other-centered for the long-haul, idolatrous justice is a popular fad.

“Biblical justice is other-centered for the long-haul, idolatrous justice is a popular fad.”

Are We Grieving the Holy Spirit in the Name of Healing?

       Over the years I have noticed that both my Christian and unbelieving peers engage in the issues of justice as if the weight of the world is upon their shoulders and their influence will change the very time of day. My generation’s words are marked by boldness, candor, and conviction as we declare what is true about our world and the changes that need to take place. For us, justice is crystal clear and immediately actionable. One might even say apolitical and unbiased. Any delay to act upon the truth is immoral and any disagreement with our ideas aligns you with the evildoers of history.  

       This passion is contagious—but we have unfortunately fallen for an old trap. We have concerned ourselves with the outcomes of equity and human dignity, disregarding the path we take to get there. Thus, in seeking to advance the futures of the people around us, we are trampling the voices, feelings, and humanity of people who disagree with us.

       Eric Hoffer wrote a book in the 1950s titled, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. In this book, Hoffer observed that when people believe they are fighting for something bigger than themselves—that there is a mission or coherent direction to their thoughts and activities, they will be prone to “renounce the self and become part of a compact whole” (i.e. find like-minded people) and “not only renounce personal advantage but are also [become] rid of personal  
responsibility”.[3] He is suggesting that when a vision for the future is understood and definitively believed, people will pursue these ends with passion. In process, the achievement of a desired end can lead to total disregard for the means taken to arrive at the intended destination.[4]

       What my generation pursues may be noble, on mission, and even virtuous! But if we lose our tempers, swear our opponents into silence, unfollow the dissenters, and perceive some people as ignorant fools, then we have sinned and made justice idolatrous. If you don’t believe me, then I challenge you to meditate on the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:21–22:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders  will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 

       Jesus took the example of murder, something his listeners knew by heart as morally bankrupt, and intensified its meaning. How? Murder no longer meant the physical taking of life—it was now the psychological, cognitive, or emotional shedding of human respect for a member of the human race. This is an error we have all made, deserving God’s punishment. Paul makes this point boldly in Ephesians 4:30–32:  

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

While Paul is speaking to the Ephesian church, Christians have been summoned to a higher calling as people who have received the gift of Jesus Christ’s salvific work, one where our identity in Christ does not change, our character is always intact, and our words should build others up. 

       On the other hand, when we prioritize the ends over the means, accept and encourage thoughts and language that minimize human life and demonize others we make an idol of justice and grieve the Holy Spirit. Idolatrous justice looks like Christian hypocrisy: annoyance, impatience, disregard, frustration, anger, insult, and hate. On the other hand, biblical justice is wholly concerned with the way we pursue justice in light of its ends. Biblical justice is intended to restore all relationships so all can be drawn toward salvation. The moment our hearts turn cold to our neighbor and we think their beliefs, actions, or history puts them outside the realm of grace, we know we have rejected the “side of love” and have taken the place of God in deciding who will be shown mercy and who will be shown judgment. Let’s not grieve the Holy Spirit in the name of healing.

The Start of Biblical Justice: Investing Long-Term in Messy Relationships

       The church is uniquely positioned to contribute to justice within and outside its walls, but it cannot ignore how it often imitates the chorus of the culture around it. The justice of my generation is an easy justice: we make claims, pressure others into compliance, and feel gratified at having exerted our influence for a cause’s gain. Awareness may have been achieved for an issue by posting to social media, setting up a yard sign, and making a one-time donation—but there are still people in need of help that are not receiving the long-term investments they need. If we are to pursue biblical justice, then we must begin by unraveling our pride from the Spirit’s presence among the Gentiles (Acts  10:27–47). Peter’s clarity of vision came not from his personal righteousness—dedication, study, sacrifice, or beliefs but from the Spirit’s guidance. Reliance on the Spirit is how the Lord’s thoughts become our thoughts and the ego of serving others gets drowned out. Removing pride from justice means caring so deeply for God that we forget about ourselves in working for others. As Jesus instructed, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matt. 6:3).

       We must read Hebrews 4:12 again and again, asking the Lord to break our callous hearts from seeking self-gain:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper  than any two-edged sword, piercing to the  division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of  marrow, and discerning the thoughts and  intentions of the heart.

The Lord’s grace is deep enough to pivot our pursuit of justice from status—something that gives us meaning or feeds our ego, to generous self-giving that sees relationship as the primary conduit of justice. There are many levels to justice and its related considerations, but Scripture calls each of us to be personally vested in the well-being of our local neighbors. Jesus had good reason to call us toward making disciples of people from all nations in the Great Commission (e.g. Matt. 28:19)—because discipleship necessitates ongoing personal conversations.  

       I have yet to hear of someone’s life becoming changed by a pamphlet on the end-times or a social post on poverty. But I have seen the Spirit work through grace-filled, truth-seeking conversations where people legitimately long for themselves and others to learn, relearn, and practice the magnificent Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel is that Jesus has made a one-time sacrifice so that we as sinful, self-gratifying people can enjoy a renewed standing before God and heart toward other people. This faith is not a one-off experience, it’s a journey of discovering what the Gospel means for life in community.

       We join the good Samaritan in being concerned with the spiritual, physical, social, and mental betterment of our neighbors. People are complicated, but messy people striving for healthier relationships and compassion for other community members is deeply satisfying to God. Justice, like discipleship, is relational. Put another way, idolatrous justice is marked by confidence in truth, where the wise are tasked with informing the foolish. Biblical justice is distinguished by the desire to learn and pursue justice together, where the wise are learning beside the weak to ascertain the things of God.

Trust in God’s Satisfaction, Not Our Own Sense of Gratification

       We can depend on God to avoid falling into idolatrous justice. If discipleship is our priority, then we need to re-envision our work of justice:

Belief. We do not measure the worth of another person according to their beliefs. We can challenge others with grace and patience.

Visibility. We will be content with the daily challenge of serving others in anonymity. The primary work of justice is not flashy—it happens in the mundane and often unnoticed spaces of life.

Personal Fulfillment. We should fight the temptation of developing an unhealthy pride in doing good. Jesus calls us to action in the Gospels by entrusting us—sinners, with life giving ministry. We are followers of God and are giving glory to Him, not our egos.  

Perspective. We do not work toward justice only when a quorum of people can be reached. We invest long-term in messy people, without prioritizing the outcomes.  

Effectiveness. We may work toward justice for our entire lives and not see substantive results in a broken world, but this does not mean our work is not valuable. Justice may not bring about immediate results, but hopefully it will spur people to see the existence, role, and meaning of God in the present.

Progress. We are called to help our neighbor, even when life’s cycle of growth and decay  continues. The primary goal of justice is not  success, rather, it is a life freed from the chains  of death and the abuse of the world. This often  happens one person at a time.

       This is the start to trading our priorities for the Lord’s priorities and pouring into work that is meaningful to others.[5] Around the world younger generations are stepping into positions of church leadership and taking their passion for biblical justice with them. In the years ahead, we will need to foster this strength but guard against its weakness: confusing idolatrous justice for biblical justice. But when we do fall to idolatrous justice—because we will fall short, we need to lean into our merciful Savior whose presence continually re-awakens us to our shortcomings and puts us on a more righteousness path. Lord—remind us of your grace and your higher calling!


[1] End-time theology includes the timing and impact of Jesus’ second return, judgment day, the existence of heaven and hell, and the role of eternity in evangelism. This is otherwise known as eschatology.

[2] Smith, James K. A. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017. 210.

[3] Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1951. 100.

[4] Put another way, the general perception is that it is impossible to harm our neighbors when they stand on the wrong side of history. When our neighbors are amoral and impeding our collective progress towards a brighter future, they can be legitimately silenced, subdued, and rejected. What matters is attainment, not relationship with the wrongdoer.

[5] Jordan Peterson in "12 Rules for Life" writes, “There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient.” 200.

Micah is a current MDiv student at Westminster Theological Seminary

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