“Cookies are not treasure!” Max’s shrill voice rose over the din of the cafeteria, causing every head to turn. “Treasure is permanent!” he wailed. I had to summon all my strength to keep a straight face in front of the infuriated 8-year-old. Max was one of 96 kids attending a summer day camp for at-risk youth, and his class had just discovered cookies at the end of their afternoon treasure hunt. I tried to convince Max that homemade cookies were a desirable prize, but despite my best efforts, he screamed, “It’s not fair!”
I can relate to Max’s feelings of injustice—on a different scale. For the past four years, I’ve served with a non-profit that offers programs and other services for at-risk children. Working with children who live on the fringe has often caused me to struggle with injustice. I couldn’t understand why the foster care system decided to return four of seven children to their neglectful mother—all at once. My heart broke when I heard the story of a child who was abused and abandoned by both her parents.
Each of us has our own personal sense of justice that helps us discern right from wrong, fair from unfair. But what happens when our sense of justice clashes with God’s?
Jonah’s life demonstrates what can happen when we’re at odds with God. Nothing goes the way Jonah anticipated as he reluctantly made his way to Nineveh. When God spared the city, it “seemed very wrong” to Jonah (Jonah 4:1). You can almost hear him crying out, “It’s not fair!” His idea of justice for the Assyrian city was destruction—fair punishment for their sins.
Sometimes we’re unable to muster compassion for those who have acted sinfully. Jonah acknowledges his failure in this regard: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:2–3). God does not respond to Jonah or Nineveh’s sin with punishment and destruction, but with compassion and mercy. God’s grace extends beyond mere justice. He brings healing and restoration.
I keep this in mind as I interact with Max and the other children I serve. We can shy away from the mess, or we can seek to see people the way God sees them. Once we’ve caught a glimpse of His vision, we gain a clearer picture of His mission. The neglectful mother has since fallen in love with Jesus and is now attending a church where she can receive the support she needs to raise her children. The abused and neglected child was adopted by her aunt and is now thriving as a junior counselor at camp. These are the glimmers of hope that remind me that God is “gracious and compassionate” (4:2).
Jonah’s story reminds us that even when we fall short of God’s mercy and grace, He still invites us to serve in His kingdom-building work. Jesus surrounded Himself with people on the fringe because He knew they needed Him most: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31). Jesus invited them into His life and restored their relationship with God.
Kingdom-building work is not glamorous or easy. It’s hard and dirty, and we rarely see the rewards. But when Jesus leads us into these broken places, we have a choice. Are we going to cry out, “That’s not fair”? Or will we jump into the mess to share His mercy?
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).