“Tonight we are going to talk about justification,” our improv teacher announced. My ears perked up. Justification is a word we use in church about a central Christian concept. Now I was learning it was an improv word too.
“Justification is making things right,” he continued. “For example, if during a scene I think I’m a mouse eating cheese,” he said while pretending to nibble on a tiny piece of invisible Swiss, “and another actor says, ‘It’s time to go Santa,’ then I’m Santa Claus, and I have to justify what I was just doing. Maybe I’d say something like, ‘Kids sure are leaving me smaller and smaller cookies each year.’”
In improv, actors are expected to make it work. “Yes, and…” doesn’t allow the mouse to say, “I’m not Santa Claus! I’m a mouse!” Instead, the actor justifies the contribution of the other. They make it work
As an improv rookie, I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know the other actors will justify any “mistakes” I might make. We’re all in this together.
Making things right
Like me, you probably sense that our world is not all it should or could be. It feels broken.
In Simply Christian, N.T. Wright teaches that God is “setting the world to rights.” Christians believe God is at work justifying his world—restoring it, making it right—and inviting us to participate in this work (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
When Christians talk about God making individuals right, we often use the term salvation. Because that word that is sometimes misunderstood, I prefer to talk about justification.
“Justification is another word for pardon,” John Wesley writes. “It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and, what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God” (The Scripture Way of Salvation, I.3). The founder of the Methodist movement then talks about the process through which God continues to make us right, which he calls sanctification.
I like the idea that God is in the process of restoring me, shaping me to fit into his kingdom. Like my fellow improv actors, God catches me and brings me into alignment with him, his scene.
Please don’t push this metaphor too far. In improv, a suggestion can change a scene. God is not bending his will to match mine. Rather, God is making me right, making me fit into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our work of justifying
In Jesus’s parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), the sheep have no idea why Jesus decides to reward them. They reached out in love to others because something in their gut told them it wasn’t right for their fellow human beings to suffer. So they did something about it.
Jesus tells them that when they were serving the other, they were also serving him. They were participating in the work of God, the work Jesus came to continue–justifying the world.
God justifies us and invites us to join his work of setting the world to rights. When we offer food, drink, clothes, shelter, love, and support to a neighbor we are participating in God’s new creation.
Seen this way, justification has less to do with a status or a destination after death, and more to do with participating in God’s work in the world today.
One big improv scene
Like an improv actor justifying those around her, we are to help others fit into God’s scene. We reach out in loving compassion to welcome the stranger. We don’t allow others to feel like they are a mistake, like they are outside of God’s love and grace.
Instead, we make it work. We offer a better story. You may think you are a mouse. I say you’re Santa. Let’s go with the better story.
Read more of my improv posts.