Do you ever find yourself in a position where you need to make a difficult decision, and you don’t know what to do? Often the best decision isn’t the easiest thing, and sometimes a person has to choose between the lesser of the two evils. In Between Two Truths, Klyne Snodgrass writes:
During World War II, Winston Churchill was forced to make a painful choice. The British secret service had broken the Nazi code and informed Churchill that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry. He had two alternatives: (1) evacuate the citizens and save hundreds of lives at the expense of indicating to the Germans that the code was broken; or (2) take no action, which would kill hundreds but keep the information flowing and possibly save many more lives. Churchill had to choose and followed the second course.[i]
In Matthew 1.18, Joseph faced a tough choice, and had no idea what he should do. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Can you imagine being in Joseph’s position? In those days, family honor was everything. Brides were supposed to be virgins, and it seemed that Mary was not. She had this crazy story of miraculous conception, and Joseph just didn’t know what to believe. Perhaps the words of the prophet rang in his ears, directing him to a decision: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8 ESV)?” This seemed helpful as he tried to determine what the Lord required of him. But in reality, it seemed to present three different options.
First, Joseph could choose to do justice. Certainly, everyone believes that acting justly is always the best thing…or is it? According to Deuteronomy 22, the just punishment for adultery, fornication, or incest was death by stoning. Joseph was within his rights to seek the death penalty against Mary, and keep his honor clean. Justice means doing the right thing, and doing the right thing means seeking justice…doesn’t it? For every crime, a punishment that fits? Joseph must have considered what the right thing to do was in this situation.
In your life decisions, you have the option of seeking. Justice is a good thing. It means treating all people fairly, doing what’s right. Justice means giving everybody what they deserve. But sometimes justice can be harsh. Giving people what they deserve might mean doling out punishment—and then you have to ask yourself whether you’re really qualified to make that decision, or whether it’s the right time for action. In Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do, Robert Schuller writes:
I remember one winter my dad needed firewood, and he found a dead tree and sawed it down. In the spring, to his dismay, new shoots sprouted around the trunk. He said, "I thought sure it was dead. The leaves had all dropped in the wintertime. It was so cold that twigs snapped as if there were no life left in the old tree. But now I see that there was still life at the taproot." He looked at me and said, "Bob, don't forget this important lesson. Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst mood. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come."[ii]
Just because it’s in your power to give somebody what they deserve, does that mean that you should? Justice might mean cutting down the tree, or the person—or it may not. Is there a better way? Micah says we should do justice AND love kindness.
Joseph decided to take the higher road of kindness, in regards to Mary. Though he didn’t necessarily believe her story, he decided to treat her as if it were true. He chose to give her the benefit of the doubt. Justice called for her death, but the law also allowed him to save her life by forgiving her. This he was willing to do—but he drew the line at marrying her. The hurt had gone too deep for that. In those days, betrothal was different from today’s engagement. In order to get out of the marriage, he had to divorce her. Verse 19 (ESV) says that “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” In his mind, that was the path of kindness.
What decisions do you have to make right now? Is there a way of justice to which you are perfectly entitled, but then a higher way of kindness? Which of the two is the better path? There’s an old saying that goes, “It may be true that there are two sides to every question, but it is also true that there are two sides to a sheet of flypaper, and it makes a big difference to the fly which side he chooses.” For the Christian, kindness ought always to win out over justice. Yet Micah says that there may be three sides to this flypaper. Did you know that flypaper has three sides? There’s the wide sticky side, the wide non-sticky side, and then there’s the narrow edge. Micah points out the third, most narrow path of all: Do justice, love kindness, AND walk humbly with your God.
Joseph was a good man. This means he was prepared to choose kindness over justice. But this word “and” in Micah is a powerful word. It means that you don’t get to choose between the three—you have to do them all. Be fair, show mercy, and walk humbly with God, all at the same time. For Joseph, walking humbly before God meant listening to God’s message. Self-will says, “I know the right way. I can make this decision all by myself.” Walking humbly with God says, “Lord, I want you to show me Your way—and I’m willing to do it.”
Walking humbly with God, Joseph’s heart was ready for the third option. He neither had to have Mary stoned to death nor did he have to put her away quietly. Joseph chose to follow an angel’s advice, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (v. 20 ESV).” Walking humbly with God, Joseph admitted that he didn’t have all the answers. Admitting that he didn’t have all the answers, he opened himself for God’s creative plan. Marry Mary anyway. Accept the child. Raise him as a son. It was preposterous—but it was God’s way. And this was the path Joseph chose.
“Do justice, love kindness, AND walk humbly with your God.” This is what the Lord requires of you. Do you have any tough decisions to make? Are you asking yourself how you can do the right thing? Maybe the right thing is to seek justice—but perhaps there’s a higher way of kindness. And there may be a way that’s higher still. If you listen with a humble heart to God’s voice that speaks in the midst of your confusion, you just might hear that angelic message, directing you toward the greatest mission of your life. I pray that in all the decisions you have to make, that God will show you what is good, what the Lord requires of you. I pray that, like Joseph, you’ll do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.