If you are suffering unjustly at the hands of some specific person or group of people, it’s easy to see the perfect solution. God could rain down some fire from heaven, maybe just a lightning bolt or two, and the problem would be fixed. God’s justice would be accomplished, our suffering would end, and all parties would be satisfied.

Except the oppressor.

We love the perfect justice of God when it is applied to the wicked. However, we must also come to grips with the radical love of God for all of His creation. Ezekiel 18:32 says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God, so turn, and live.” We forget sometimes that if not for the grace of God, we too would be making others suffer. We puff ourselves up in self-righteousness instead of humbly remembering our own wicked deeds before God saved us.

No one, even the vilest sinner, is beyond the redemptive power of God. We simply do not know if the reason God allows oppression to continue is that His wise plan is to save that person. One of the slaves on John Newton’s ships while he was a slave trader surely prayed for God to strike Newton dead. But in God’s graciousness, he chose to forbear and eventually Newton repented. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

In the meantime, though, the slaves under John Newton experienced very real suffering inflicted by a wicked man making a living off a wicked trade. What should our response be? We simply cannot understand all the wisdom of God in governing circumstances such as these. We can only trust in His perfect love and the perfect justice. Matthew 5:43-45 is a hard teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Desiring justice is certainly commended by Scripture. There is no other way to explain imprecatory psalms that invoke curses upon the wicked. However, we must be careful to distinguish between desiring justice and vengeance. Scripture clearly declares that vengeance is the sole province of the Lord (Deut 32:35, Rom 12:19, Heb 10:30). We must never take it upon ourselves to determine who does and does not deserve the mercy of God. He declares, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19).

Not all the wicked men who experience the gracious forbearance of God will repent. In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus gives us a parable to help us understand why God should allow both good and evil to befall both the righteous and the wicked. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with good seed by a landowner interspersed with tares sown by his enemy in secret. When the problem becomes evident, the landowner chooses to let the tares grow side by side with the wheat, because he wants to avoid uprooting any of the wheat. But when harvest time comes, there will be no confusion: the tares will be burned, and the wheat will be safe in the barn.

To speak more clearly, the righteous and the wicked will live side by side for a certain amount of time. But God assures us that this is not purposeless: it’s actually for our protection. We can’t tell who belongs to the wheat and who belongs to the tares. But we may rest assured that in the end, the just Judge will vindicate the righteous and destroy the wicked. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Gal 6:7).