It is risky to pray for justice, but we should do it anyway.

I’m thinking about Habakkuk today, an Old Testament prophet who had the audacity to ask God for justice. Habakkuk took a long hard look at systemic injustice in Israel—social division, violence, oppression. His depiction of the nation is one of total moral and social upheaval: “The law is ignored and justice is never upheld” (Hab. 1:4). Because justice has become so “perverted,” Habakkuk cries out to Yahweh for help.

If Habakkuk teaches us anything, he teaches us that it is good and right to pray for justice. But he also teaches us something else. Praying for justice is risky precisely because God might answer our prayer. Habakkuk didn’t realize just how broken the nation was and just how holy God is. As a result, he is surprised when God tells him that the entire nation would be implicated in God’s judgment on evil. It wasn’t a narrow group of sinners alone who would taste the coming judgment. The nation had to face a reckoning.

Habakkuk complains about this and wonders how such a judgment can be just. In response, God informs him, “The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 3:20). This appears to be God’s way of saying that no one has a right to question God’s just judgment—not even the prophet. God is holy. We are not. Put your hand over your mouth if you feel tempted to dispute that.

When we pray for justice—and we must!—we have to realize that we are in the place of Habakkuk. We may be implicated in the justice we pray for in ways we haven’t allowed ourselves to consider. Shudder.

I am reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in which he recognizes that both sides of the Civil War, North and South, believed in the justice of their cause and prayed to the same God for relief. And yet Lincoln also realized that the war itself was a judgment on both North and South for their sins:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Let us pray for justice. And let us do it with eyes wide open to the fact that the one praying may be implicated in ways he never imagined. And when justice rolls down like a mighty stream, let us humble ourselves and say, “Why should any living mortal, or any man, Offer complaint in view of his sins?” (Lam. 3:39). “The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 3:20). “The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).

So with tears in my eyes and a hand over my mouth, I am praying with Habakkuk today: “LORD, I have heard the report about Thee and I fear. O LORD, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).


  • Christiane Smith

    In the service of pursuing justice, there are no limits to the active presence of love, mercy, and forgiveness;
    and there can be no real justice where love, mercy, and forgiveness are not possible.

  • Curt Day

    I’ve been on many a protest that calls for justice. At the same time, as I and my fellow protesters call for justice, I remember how I haven’t always treated others justly and so this tempers my call for justice.

    Let’s face it, unless we see ourselves as the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying did, refraining from calling for justice is done out of a conflict of interest. That is because if were to call for God’s on everyone, we would be calling for judgment on ourselves as well.

    Thus, our call for justice needs to be tempered by our knowledge of everyone’s need for mercy and our desire to see people repent from their sin. This is a point that should be no less true when calling for social justice as it is calling for justice on individuals. The minimal justice we should call for is that oppression and poverty ceases. From there, we should prefer to call people to stop hurting or neglecting others. We should prefer to win our opponents over and if they won’t be won over, then we should ask for the government to restrain any unjust ways our opponents would practice. And we should prefer that way because we constantly live in need of God’s mercy.

  • Lauren Law

    What a powerful word! Would that more preachers would share this truth to arm the children of God for what must surely come.

    I pray…in awe and knowledge…that His righteousness be restored at whatever cost. We are a nation of chaos…a nation that has forgotten the foundation and denied the Creator, thus denying everything with which He endowed us. In a world that has loudly taught us to take pride in ourselves, I humbly ask God’s forgiveness for my sins that have given satan a foothold. I seek God’s face and recognize His greatness that surrounds me every moment of every day! We don’t deserve His blessings…but I pray that God would once again intervene in our history to bless our nation.

    Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

  • senecagriggs

    In the New Living Translation – it’s almost humorous as you sense Habakkuk backtracking when he realizes God’s judgment is going to be far more sweeping than he had envisioned.

    12 O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
    O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
    13 But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
    Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they?

    14 Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
    15 Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate?
    16 Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
    “These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim.
    17 Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests?

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