Better bloggers than I (not to mention theologians) have taken on the topic of God’s Justice and Mercy – and with a great deal more scholarship than I would dare attempt.
I really know very little. But my commitment is to write what God gives me to write and so I proceed.
Regular readers may recall that several months ago I wrote a post on The Wrath of God. What I write today is consistent with that article but approaches this great mystery of God from a somewhat different angle.
Perhaps one of my favorite spiritual books is Christ the Eternal Tao, by Heirmonk Damascene. In the discussion below, I will refer to “the Way” (or Tao) which the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu described as “the Way, Path or Pattern of Heaven, the Course that all things follow”, the name of which he did now know (p. 31).
Before going further, however, I think it important to be mindful of what God’s Justice is not. Poor humans that we are, we are confined to our words and the associations we have with them. “Justice” naturally draws our minds to the notions of laws, court systems and punishment.
To our human way of thinking, justice demands that the wrong-doer be punished and that unfairness be corrected. When these things do not happen, we have another word for it: injustice.
Our word “mercy” tends to evoke an opposite association, i.e. a granting of clemency when one could have punished. Hence, one may throw oneself on “the mercy of the court” in hopes of more compassionate and lenient treatment.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these ideas. However, I think we will find ourselves very confused if we try to apply them to the Justice and Mercy of God.
Although it is natural that we tend to think of God as a Being like ourselves only greater, there are significant problems with this – unless, of course, we are considering Christ our Savior.
One of the greatest problems in this manner of thinking is that it gives the impression that God is created rather than Uncreated. God, as Being itself, is eternal and unchanging in His essence. Thus, we must always be mindful that nothing we do changes God.
Our sins do not change God, making Him angry and wanting to punish us. Our prayers for His mercy do not change Him so that His anger relents and He forgives. We are simply not so powerful that we can alter the Source and ground of all Being.
What I would like to propose is that God is His Justice and Mercy – and most certainly in a way that is beyond my ability to comprehend or describe. And I will further posit that, in Him, there is no difference between them.
There can be no tension in God, “Shall I be just or shall I be merciful? Let Me listen to the prayers and then decide.” That sounds ridiculous to our ears if we say it out loud. But sometimes we may find ourselves praying as if this were the case.
Allow me to suggest a different way of thinking about these matters.
Returning to the notion of the Tao, “the Pattern of Heaven, the Course that all things follow”, we might consider that “God as Being Itself” is perfect Being. As Creator, His created beings all have a course or a “Way” which, if followed, enables the perfection of His Being to continue in and through them.
However, if that Way is not followed, there are consequences. Not consequences as in imposed punishment, but consequences as in how perfect Being “works”.
If I carelessly knock over a glass, it breaks. Its brokenness is not a “punishment”; it is simply what happens, based on how things work. Similarly, if I have a lamp that is plugged into an electrical outlet and I unplug lit, the light goes out, another consequence based on how things work.
If I am created pure and holy, yet carelessly “drop” the Way for which I was made, I will end up broken. If I am brought into existence connected to LIght and Life but “unplug” myself from them, I will be in darkness or even death. How could it be otherwise?
This is not the punishment of an angry God. It is how things work. It is what happens when one chooses to live outside of the Way of God’s perfect Being. It is, in a word, Justice.
What then of Mercy? And why would God create beings capable of stepping outside of the Way of perfect Being, if such terrible consequences result?
Let us begin with the latter of these two questions. Though there is much that we do not understand about God, there is one thing about which we have been given considerable information.
It has been revealed to us that God as perfect Being is Love.
We are told in Scripture that God is love. In Trinity, we are shown that God loves within His own Being. The Creation that surrounds us and is us offers many hints about Love as the ground of Being as well. Even secular science is beginning to see that all living things are connected in some mysterious fashion. Although there is no way to quantify “love” on a biological level, this interconnection certainly suggests something love-like about how life works.
Thus, for God as perfect Being to design creatures capable of the Love which He is, it is inevitable that He create them able to make a choice. They have to be free to step out of the Way in order to choose to stay in the Way. If they are not choosing, it is not a full sharing in His Love.
And, of course, we know the rest of the story. We have stepped out of the Way. Rather than obediently accepting the Way we were given to follow, we wanted to create our own path. Thus, the sin of Adam and Eve.
Our ancestral sin is so deeply ingrained in our cultures that our earth is no longer recognizable as the Paradise in which the Way was the Path all of creation. The brokenness, the darkness, the death of the path we and our ancestors have made is only too clear.
And in them, we see God’s Justice. We see the consequences. But where then is His Mercy?
If God is Love, His Mercy can never be absent.
Indeed, five thousand years after Lao Tzu wrote of the Tao (or “the Way”), the name he did not know became known. For, at that time in history, a man named Jesus was born into the world and announced, “I am the Way”.
Those of us who know Him know that He has always been in the loving unity of Trinity, never having been absent. His coming into our history as one of us occurred so that we might know the Mercy that was always there.
God’s Justice is inherent to the Perfection of His Being. His Mercy is inherent to the nature of His Being. They cannot be separated or at odds with each other. We have come to know this through Christ our Savior, Who is the Way leading us out of darkness and death into the Light of His Love.
But if His Mercy is already given and unchanging, why our unending prayers for mercy, in our repetition of the Jesus prayer or other pleas for mercy?
I am but a poor sinner who knows very little. But this is what I believe: I pray for His mercy both because I need to and because God wants me to.
I need to because it is only in my prayer that I can realize in the depths of my being how very lost I have become.
I need to because it is in my prayer that I choose anew and learn to follow the true Way.
And God wants me to because He is Love. He is not just a fountain of Mercy where I come to drink or bathe. No, He wants me to come to Him in prayer so that He can give me to drink, so that He can wash me clean Himself. He wants me to experience directly and personally His deep, deep love for me…
To Him be glory forever.