What does it mean that God is just and at the same time merciful?
We all know what justice is. In fact we have known about it for as far back as we can remember. It is to give to someone what is due to them. Sure we didn’t describe it that way; we called it something else but we knew it all the same. We remember seeing mom or dad dish out the ice cream and giving just a touch more to our brother. So we called them on it, that wasn’t fair. We remember lining up for the first or maybe fifth time at school and seeing one kid, possibly that kid, butt in front of our friend; and that wasn’t fair either. It’s true, any time someone does not get what they deserve it is not fair; it is not just.
For most people, mercy means to cheat justice.
If the essence of justice is almost self-evident, we cannot say the same thing about mercy. For most people, mercy means to cheat justice. It is a moment when you say to yourself, ‘I know you deserve to go to jail, but I am going to ignore what justice demands and overlook it.’ Taken this way, our culture has a terribly difficult time understanding how God can be both justice and mercy, for it seems to many that one can only be this or that, just or merciful, enforcing the law or ignoring it.
What many have forgotten is that mercy presupposes justice, not as something that it eradicates but as something mercy perfects. Mercy, is what is due to someone that I love. And so mercy is justice when the relationship exceeds that of citizen to citizen. If you found out for example that I treat my child the same way as I treat any child you might begin to wonder about my parenting skills. In fact, if you found out that I never hug my child, clothe him, feed him or give him gifts you might begin to believe that I am quite a terrible father. But why couldn’t I do this? I don’t feed or hug or give gifts to other children. Wouldn’t it be unjust and unfair to treat this one child differently? No, not at all. What is unjust is treating someone that you should be treating with love with anything less than love.
The same applies in our relationship with God. If we want to relate to the God of the universe as a citizen brought to the courtroom knowing full well his ‘rights’ then we will have it. But if we want to relate to God as a son or daughter seeking refuge in the arms of their Father then we will have that instead.
God’s mercy is always just, but we must be His child to receive it.