Micah 6:8 NIV: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
This passage, one of the easiest in scripture to memorize and quote, condenses the commands of God into a short easy to remember formula. Just as the whole law is often said to be a commentary on the commands to love God and to love your neighbor; Micah 6:8 records the heart of Christian ethics, and all the rest can be seen as commentary or exposition applying the teaching found here.
The passage starts with a question, “What has God required of you?” and goes on to give a three-part answer, illuminating three categories of action: (1) my behavior towards my fellow man, (2) my response to my fellow man, and (3) my walk with God. All three are prescriptive—telling us “do,” rather than “don’t do.” We are “to act justly,” “to love mercy,” and “to walk humbly with God.” Let’s look at each of these in turn.
To Act Justly
To act justly is to act in way that is equitable. It is to guide one’s actions by the standard of justice. When I interact with others, in business or in life, I discover myself bound to them. Perhaps I am bound to behave toward them in a specific way. It may be a debt of finances owed or property held in trust. It could mean I owe you certain consideration. So in our interactions, justice requires I consider others in my decisions. It may require that I act towards you in a certain way—honor and respect for example. It may leave me owing you payment, or property.
To act justly means that whenever you act, in the final reckoning, that action balances the scales. When I make a choice to pay a bill or not pay it, the question of right and wrong is “do I justly owe that bill?” If so, then one who acts justly pays the bill. If, in our station and place in the world, I owe certain behavior towards you—respect, deference, etc.—then to act justly is to behave towards you in this way. It is this which Paul has in mind when he commands us to “give whatever is owed” in Romans 13:7a. In that passage he mentions taxes, revenue, respect and honor. Yes, the context is how we behave toward governing authorities, but it is based on this idea of acting justly. We do this towards governing authorities because we must do this towards all people. If I owe you a certain amount of money or a certain amount of respect and withhold it from you, then I have acted unjustly. The scales are unbalanced, with my side having more because I am retaining something that belongs on your side of the scales. Yet, this is not the end of the passage.
Close insistence on justice in all situations lead us to an eye for an eye and infliction of punishment against those who offend against us. These are biblical concepts, but don’t forget the next part.
To Love Mercy
If justice is balancing the scales, mercy is allowing the scales to be unbalanced to our own detriment, the other person’s good. Notice that it doesn’t just tell us to “do mercy.” No. It tells us to actually love mercy. We are to enjoy, and find pleasure in not holding others to account. We are to love forgiving wrongs and debts without demanding restitution. We are to enjoy freeing others from what they owe us. This doesn’t mean allowing oneself to be victimized. It actually shows different values. When I love mercy, it is not loss to allow someone to retain what they justly owe me. I get my pleasure, my value, out of forgiving them. You can actually tell what someone loves by what they insist on. One who loves money will insist they be paid back every penny owed them. One who loves their place and prestige makes sure that everyone gives them the respect and honor that their status requires. One who loves mercy will make sure to take opportunities to extend mercy. If I love to be merciful in matters of debt, I gladly forgive debts. If I love to be merciful even when others abuse me, I gladly forgive those who abuse me.
Justice guides my actions towards others; mercy guides my reaction to others. Both ultimately have to do with how I respond to ethical situations in life. To determine how I should behave towards another, the key is justice. What do I owe? What is just to do? What is just to give? What is just to pay? But “loving mercy” is the key to my response to other’s actions and to debts owed to me. He owes me, but if I love mercy, I choose to forgive the debt. He hurt me, but since I love mercy, I choose to forgive the trespass. He disrespected me, but out of love for mercy, I choose to overlook it. In the end, I hold myself to doing right by acting justly and forgive others when they fail “to act justly” towards me. Both are my choices, and interestingly are things that I can actually do. I cannot undo the things you have done to me. I ultimately have no control over what you do, but I have control over how I choose to respond.
It is better to be merciful to those who hurt us, while striving hard not to hurt others. Now, some might say that this puts me at a disadvantage. They may say, “I force myself to do justly, while others do not care about doing right, so—in the end—I lose.” However, this overlooks an important part of this ethical equation. To simply stop there, I am to be pitied, because my ethics makes me a potential victim. However, this passage also speaks of our walk with God. It is this that balances the scales, when the other person refuses to do so.
To Walk Humbly with God
Walking humbly with God is actually tied to these previous two. They are our relationship with our fellowman and this command is our relationship with God. However, it tells us to walk with God, but where do we walk? We walk upon the earth, among our fellow men. We live out our life before the divine, but we live it among the mundane. When we walk humbly with God, we do not demand our own from Him. We allow that God is in control of our lives and we humbly accept what he brings in to our lives. When others mistreat us, we trust God to handle it. When others cheat us and act unjustly we know God has allowed it for our good. It means we trust Him to handle things in the end. However, the humility is an important part of this. One reason we are quick to demand our way and to demand people treat us a specific way is because we hold ourselves in high regard. “I deserve better!” We as Christians know we do not deserve better. We know that we deserve death and damnation. We know that it is true “There but by the grace of God go I” but should also know it is equally true to say, “There but by the grace of God was I.” When others mistreat us, we can lean upon God. We can trust that the things He allows into our lives serve a purpose and the purpose is far more glorious than the life we would have planned for ourselves. We can look at life’s situations and say, “You apparently want me to go through this Lord. So be it.” This is humbly walking with God.
Take a Step Back
This takes our ethics in a different direction from what is often assumed by the term. There are various schools of normative ethics (a system of ethics with a formula for determining right from wrong, and with a process for determining a course of action). Many of these ethical schools have tried to show that Christian ethics fall within their camp. Rather than doing this (personally, I see Christian ethics as closest to Virtue Ethics, but that is not important here), I will point out some things this passage tells us about Christian ethical behavior.
As I said before, our action towards others is guided by justice and our response to others is guided by mercy. I also said that this is within the context of a humble walk with God. But some will claim that if we take this to a certain length we could actually be enabling sin and even harming others. What if I know a person who borrows money to pay a bill, but is unable to pay me back? To act mercifully, I would forgive the debt. Of course, since the Bible says that the borrower is slave to the lender and I have no desire to enslave anyone, I always give money and never lend it (I am talking about individuals, not the bank). But let’s take the illustration a bit further. How do I respond when the person comes to request more money? Do I lend or not. If I do not, am I being unmerciful? Mercy is how I respond to what others owe me—through a debt or through their action. There is nothing merciful or unmerciful about giving someone money. Giving is grace or generosity, not mercy. Mercy tells me to forgive what they cannot or will not pay back. It does not tell me whether to give in the first place. Now, you may say, “What if they need the money to pay an important bill? Wouldn’t it be unmerciful to not give them help?” Mercy has only to do with what you owe me, not what you owe another. Giving them money to pay a bill is still generosity and not mercy. Mercy would be if the one they owed forgave the debt so they didn’t have to pay the bill. So what about the part of the passage that determines my actions, instead of my reactions? What about Justice? If I refuse to give to another person something I do not owe them, then am I being unjust? Of course not!
Now, many will complain that this reduces an ethical view derived from this passage to nonsense or uselessness because we have very quickly found an example of an ethical problem that it does not answer. However, this is not true at all—it has given an answer to the problem. We have shown that our ethical standard of acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God does not require us to take any action in this case, neither does it forbid us from taking an action—this is an answer. Ethical systems can show us an action is required, is forbidden or is neutral. In this case we are free to decide to give or not give and neither course of action would be unethical. Of course, you can also bring in the part about walking humbly with God and prayerfully seek direction from God. Does He want you to give? You could also dig deeper into the situation to see if there is some unmentioned fact which would require one direction or another. This has nothing to do with the usefulness of Micah 6:8 to guide our ethical decisions, but simply shows that deeper knowledge can change one situation into a very different situation.
So consider the depth of Micah 6:8, God requires us to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him.