Abuse and Justice: Tim Keller’s Book “Generous Justice”

I just finished the book Generous Justice [Affiliate link] by Tim Keller and I highly recommend it. It is not about abuse or domestic violence, but it is related in that it is about the church’s responsibility of bringing justice to the “vulnerable ones”.

What I found particularly compelling was Keller’s discussion of “justice”, or the word “mishpat” in the Hebrew. He says it is “….giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.” For many Reformed believers, we are used to thinking of justice in terms of “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” – as my pastor says we “deserve hell before breakfast”; however, this word is not talking about how man relates to God, rather, it means looking at others as they were created in God’s likeness and addressing the inequalities. Justice in this sense is partially about punishing the wicked, but it is also about the restoration of the oppressed. Over and over again in the Scripture, especially the Old Testament, God commands His people to bring justice to the vulnerable groups, usually identified as widows, orphans, and aliens.

This perspective affected my last post quite a bit as I thought about giving abuse victims “what they are due”. So often abuse victims are denied justice and told it is not their “right”; but this is in stark contrast to God who repeatedly commands those who have to give sacrificially in order to lift up those who have been oppressed. Though the church may often say differently, as image bearers of God we all “due” to be treated with respect and compassion, not oppression and violence.

Keller is mainly focused on poverty in his book, but his message is clear: we don’t help “vulnerable ones” by writing checks and getting involved from afar. True restoration requires sacrifice and commitment by individual Christians. I think of the old joke “when it comes to breakfast, chickens are involved, but pigs are committed”. Too often the church wants to be involved rather than committed, and this applies to all kinds of oppression. We would prefer these problems take place in the world of the oppressed, not our world, and have as little impact on us as possible.

I do hope the evangelical church will read this book and see that justice is more than just an atonement issue: it’s a part of how we treat one another. I also hope people will see that ignoring domestic violence is not just. Once again, Keller never mentions abuse, but I have no doubt if the church started really applying what he says in the book then we would see justice for abuse victims. It’s certainly worth a read for anyone who wants a more Godly picture of how we should relate to others, especially the oppressed.

[April 8, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to April 8, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 8, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 8, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 8, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

6 thoughts on “Abuse and Justice: Tim Keller’s Book “Generous Justice””

  1. Thanks, Jeff S, I really appreciate the definition of justice as —

    giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.

    It sounds like a pretty good definition of servant-leadership too. Not that leaders are the only ones who bear responsibility for delivering justice — all Christians are called to that duty, to the degree that they have the power to fulfill it.

    Of course, those suffering oppression should not themselves have to bear a heavy duty of delivering justice to others. Apart from forswearing vengeance against their oppressors, the role of the oppressed (if you can call it a role) is to receive care and protection from others who are truly able to give such care and protection, and thus to gradually heal, find their feet, become empowered, gain strength and maybe one day be able to help others who’ve been oppressed.

  2. Yes, thank you, Jeff S. This return to this biblical truth is desperately needed within the greater church. I have often thought about how the modern American church would deal with a statement like Galatians 2:10 if it were stated directly to them. It seems to be such an accepted ideology that those who have only have because they are blessed by God for their right-doing, and the poor are in that station because they’ve made wrong, sinful decisions and are receiving God’s judgment. I once even heard a pastor say, “I would love to help, but your want may be due to God trying to teach you a lesson. And, who am I to interfere with what God is doing in your life?” Sadly, it is not just that they have turned a blind eye to DV. Overall, they seem to choose a couple of pet projects and choose to ignore all other suffering, passing it off as somehow being deserved.

    I’ll add this book to be wish list!

  3. I too had a moment of “we don’t want to be enabling you” — it was very disheartening.

    Keller spends a lot of time in the book dealing with people’s objections to helping the poor, especially the excuse of “enabling” or “it won’t do any good”. He actually quotes Jonathan Edwards to make his point — it turns out Edwards was pretty tough on folks who did not want to give to the poor.

    One thing Keller discusses a lot is the related ideas in the Old Testament of “justice” and “righteousness”, the latter being defined as basically a way of living that if everyone did it, there would be no need for “justice”. He notes that this is the social conservative ideology — we don’t do “justice”, instead we work on making everyone “righteous”. So you get answers like “the antidote to poverty is hard work”. That sounds like a great theory — unfortunately it is not the biblical way. Repeatedly God pairs these two concepts together and commands we do both (social liberals do the “justice” part without the “righteousness”, which also falls short). Simply put, God does not accept our excuses for not helping the oppressed — we are called to help and be committed.

    How many of us have experienced the call to the churches idea of “righteousness” without any regard to justice? If we would all just live right with God, the problems would go away….

    If you want to avoid a spoiler that is a beautiful story from the book, don’t read the rest of my post (the way it unfolds in the book is very powerful).

    He tells a story about how his church gave money to this woman who had no job, was alone with her children, and had bills mounting up. Out of a conviction to do justice, they gave her enough to cover her bills. A few months later they found out that instead of paying her bills, she’d spent the money on dinners out with the kids and presents. She hasn’t paid the bills — they were furious! This was “God’s money” and she’d wasted it, confirming their convictions that she was poor because of her own unrighteousness choices. He actually ends the chapter in his book here and the impression is that she goes down as another example of how we can try, but ultimately the poor will often frustrate our efforts to help them.

    Yet we find out in the next chapter that they didn’t leave it there. They found that she was so shamed that her children didn’t have the things she thought they ought to have, she felt compelled to spend the money on them. It was wrong, but her heart was good. So they made a new deal — they gave her more money, but this time with oversight and training into good fiscal management and the church got personally involved with mentoring and helping with her children. This hands-on approach worked and she was able not only to pay her bills, but eventually get a job and get her family back on track.

    It’s a beautiful story where the church doesn’t just let “we are just enabling her” be a good enough answer. The key is understanding the situation and empathizing with the oppressed — things may look different when you see them in a new light. It turns out there was a “righteous” part of the woman’s behavior, but her lack of skill with money and error in judgement caused her to use the money improperly. Within the church was committed to justice, the righteousness in this woman’s heart was fully realized.

    1. As I have said before, my pastor actually stood with me against my abuser. He still doesn’t get that the abuse is a daily thing and that it is like an addict with his drug being control. He, my pastor, says he understands, but he [is] repeatedly surprised by things my ex says and does. Until I read this post above I hadn’t put our church’s stand on the poor with my pastor’s stand with me. But maybe this is why he could so easily stand with me. We are very serious about the poor and homeless. Most of our ministry is to the homeless, and the chronically homeless, going to their camps, walking them through the long haul, respecting them. We own three houses now to help them get back on their feet. Not just a shelter but “here is your home, with clean showers and you can safely leave your stuff and we’ll listen to you and we’ll walk through the maze of social services with you.”

      You cannot really help the poor with just a Band-Aid, you have to walk next to them for a while. This is true in domestic abuse too. Quick fixes just don’t do enough. (Also, I know how the above woman felt about spending on her kids….there are some things, my friend who has walked a similar path as me have shared, I know about budgets and being frugal but I also know about what my kids have gone through for years and some things I can’t just look at the money aspect. It would help my budget to get rid of my pets but it would devastate my kids emotionally so we make room in the budget elsewhere.)

  4. I do hope the evangelical church will read this book and see that justice is more than just an atonement issue: it’s a part of how we treat one another.

    Jeff S, thank you for sharing this book and the explanation of it’s content. Is this the same Timothy Keller who wrote “The Prodigal God”?

    The entire atonement issue has always felt so one-sided in my evangelical church experiences. Leadership wanting the sinner or perpetrator to be forgiven, leaving the rest of us unheard and bleeding at the side of the road after the wreck. It’s as if it’s the magic wand, and life goes on because the abuser “needs” forgiveness, atonement, justice. This still weighs heavily on me and my circumstances. The passages speaking of orphans and widows somehow has never been applied to those who are or have been abused. It feels as if these have been left at a literal translation, rather than stepping out of the box and recognizing ALL who fall into the category of orphaned and widowed.

    Thank you again sharing the story and book. It’s good to hear that another respected author is beginning to reach beyond stereotypes, too. I pray he IS heard, and action happens from there.

    1. Yes, that is the same Tim (or Timothy – his work was introduced to me as “Tim” so that’s how I refer to him) Keller.

      I will also mention that he clearly states that he sees “orphans and widows” as being representative “vulnerable ones” in the Old Testament culture and that today’s oppressed may fall into different categories.

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