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The Great Balancing Act of Life

March 26, 2021
By Paul Emmel

Scale weighing justice and mercy


Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe describes the balance between being compassionate towards people and holding them responsible for their own behavior.  He calls it "The Great Balancing Act of life." In his usual laconic style, Wolpe says that we must strive to be both merciful to others and, at the same time, hold them accountable for their decisions.

Maintaining such a balanced attitude is both difficult and counter-intuitive. It goes directly against human nature which pushes people to label others, prejudge them, and dismiss them as totally wrong or completely right. Moreover, emotions such as frustration, fear, anger, and false thinking such as idealism and tribalism cloud our thinking and knock people off balance.

Just as a teeter-totter does not work with total weight on one end, human relationships do not work when humans overemphasize judgment or mercy. Friendships, marriages, neighborhoods, and governments become dysfunctional when some degree of balance is not maintained.

The rush to generalize must also be resisted. Each person and each situation needs to be considered on its own merits. The aim of justice is to focus on a particular person in a particular circumstance, not to use stereotypes or past behavior as a basis for forming judgments whether legal or personal.

Worse yet, it is a mistake to assume we can fully know the motives of other people. We may judge behavior, but not character. Only God is qualified to judge the person. Withholding judgment seems divine and not human. "To err is human; to forgive is divine." Somehow we must adopt divine thinking.

Both Jewish and Christian theology support a dual view of human behavior. It is based upon the paradoxical character of Jahweh who is both completely just (holy) and completely merciful.  It is so easy to err on one side or the other in weighing the paradox of God's heart. To suppose God thinks like us is a form of idolatry.

Jesus always knew when to be compassionate and when to demand repentance. He was not fooled by smooth words and hypocrisy. He was capable of reading hearts. He knew whom to forgive and whom to hold responsible for their behavior. He was merciful to some and demanding  change of others. He possessed the divine mind.

When we closely follow Jesus, we are more likely to strike the balance between the extremes. When - not if - we err to one side or the other, we confess our imbalance. We may be corrected by the Holy Spirit touching our conscience, by faithful believers who model good balance in their lives and by the dynamic Word of Scripture.

During the great trial in Minneapolis, we have endless opportunities to practice "The Great Balancing Act of Life." We need to be compassionate while holding people accountable for their behavior, regardless if they are on the witness stand or demonstrating in the streets. This will not be easy as there are always voices without and forces within urging us to rush to judgment.

We pray for wisdom to know when and how to be compassionate and when and how to be calling for change and justice. That is our challenge in the coming weeks of the trial and in the days of our entire lives.

Paul Emmel

March 13, 2021


Paul EmmelPaul Emmel is a retired pastor in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, having served as a parish pastor, a correctional chaplain for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a hospital chaplain and a community counselor. As a retired pastor, Paul continues to serve the Lord and His people, including establishing the Minnesota South District’s “Pastors to Prisoners” ministry.