Often throughout the history of the Church many people have grappled with the interconnection between God’s mercy and His justice. I’m not exempt here. I have noticed in myself and in others, that often one attribute can be overemphasized, producing a caricature of Who God truly is.
If justice is the attribute that is overemphasized it can result in a picture of God that is punitive and fear based; He is believed to be the All-Seeing Taskmaster Who demands perfection and punishes the least infraction of the law. Often holding this image of God can cause someone to respond quite energetically and enthusiastically to what they believe is the will of God, and to do it with all sincerity, however, over time the energy and enthusiasm wear off because fear driven actions do not sustain someone for long.
If mercy is the attribute overemphasized to the exclusion of other truths about God, it can result in an image of God as soft, dismissive of rules, nullifying (or seriously reducing) the obligation to follow moral laws and other errors, due to mistaken notions about what it means to say, “All that matters is showing love and mercy.” The full truth of the reality of love and mercy is obscured. For those who embrace this image of God, there is a true freedom to love; but it slowly dissipates into a humanity-based love, not a divine love, that leads to the approval of things contrary to the natural moral laws etched into the heart of humankind.
Some, in their attempt to avoid such dualities and caricatures, have come up with creative solutions, such as the belief that God’s justice is actually His mercy and His mercy is actually His justice, basically saying that they are the same thing; or believing that God keeps justice and mercy in a fine balance, that He has to mitigate one with the other, keeping both in check.
All of the above have some truths to them. However, they fall short of the beautiful reality of God’s justice and mercy. The solution comes when these two attributes are seen, not as opposing forces, but as expressions of God’s goodness that work together in particular circumstances.
Let me fill in some details that are important. Since I’m writing about justice and mercy, I’d better define them. Justice is traditionally defined as, “giving to things what is due them”; God’s mercy is considered to be whenever He dispels some defect, “whatever be the defect we call misery.” These definitions will be helpful in one moment. Before I use them though, let me mention one word on God’s goodness.
If God is goodness itself and it’s a part of His nature, then whatever action He takes flows from this goodness and, is therefore, a unique expression of it. Some examples might help. If He bestows a gift on someone for that person’s benefit and not His own (such as, for instance, the gift of the Eucharist), it’s a unique expression of this goodness called liberality, self-less generosity. When God gives to another his or her due (as He does with the souls in purgatory who are making atonement for their sins), it’s a unique expression of this goodness called justice. When God removes a defect from someone (such as healing an illness or helping in a time of need), it’s a unique expression of this same goodness that is called mercy. Each one of these is a different action on the part of God to mankind.
So, having said all that, how can these two different expressions of God’s goodness—His justice and His mercy—work together? An experience common to all may help illustrate the harmony. God, Who only wills the good for us, exercises His goodness when He shows a person their sin. It’s usually not a pleasant experience. No one likes to see his or her shortcomings. These moments of illumination are acts of God’s justice: He’s revealing before the eyes of the person’s soul his or her misery and sin. He is showing them where they are lacking.
God further shows His goodness by not leaving the person in this misery and sin. Once the person turns to God, asking forgiveness, God exercises His mercy by removing from the soul that misery or sin which had distorted them. This is what happens in the forgiveness of sins. These moments are acts of God’s mercy.
Seen in this light, God’s justice and mercy are truly working together. They are a harmonious action on the part of God to bring souls back to Him. This understanding of the justice and mercy of God can help to dispel the false understandings regarding these characteristics, help to prevent caricatures of Who God truly is, and enable people to understand that God is always with them, willing their good, whether it’s in the experience of their sinfulness and misery or in the healing calm of forgiveness.
—Br. James of the Holy Spirit