Our Lord’s Divine Mercy

When I heard a few months ago that Chris Tomlin would be giving a concert in Minneapolis, I began a vigilant search for ticket information. Those who know me know that his is a kind of music that has been instrumental to my developing faith, and the form of prayer that accompanies it carries a similar significance for me.

So it was with excitement that my wife and I made the necessary arrangements and set out for Target Center following Mass one recent Saturday, looking forward to an evening of prayerful song.

What I recall more vividly than the concert, however, is the man on the street corner outside the concert venue. He stood with a very large sign, and called out a memorized Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate…” The text on the sign included a number of verses or convictions to the effect of “God hates sin,” “Jesus is the just judge,” and “God will punish you.”

This is a familiar line of reasoning, and betrays a misunderstanding of divine justice. I’d like to dwell on this concept of divine justice further, but in light of the day’s feast of the Divine Mercy.

Principally ringing in those words from the sign of the man on the corner is a singular motivation based on the primordial experience of punishment: that of fear. We should fear God’s punishment, and so we should amend our ways. “Turn or burn” is the old, flippant phrase to describe this manner of theology—the notion that we must forsake sin “or else.”

However, God is not our accuser, and as much as our sin grieves Him, it cannot harm Him. What is taken by sin is nothing that could not be restored to Him by sincere conversion and contrition. Our will and our love is what He wants from us, and when He is offended by sin, it is as a scorned lover, not as a property owner. It isn’t blood that He desires in payment for the wrongs of humanity, but merely contrite hearts (Psalm 51:19). Therein is mercy.

The truth is that there are competing understandings at work: that of a justice that demands retribution, and that of a justice that renews and restores. By one standard, justice will only be satisfied by bloodshed and punishment. By the other, justice will only be satisfied when order is restored, that is, things are set right once again. One seeks repayment in the form of punishment, and the other seeks to have full and uncontested possession of goods returned to the owner. “Retributive” Justice is a very human thing, and we can understand it pretty readily. Most civil penal systems are based solely on this model.

 “Restorative” Justice, however, is a radically different way to look at justice. Restorative Justice seeks, as the name would indicate, restoration. Restoration implies that all that has been taken or injured is returned, but returned as if nothing had been taken or hurt in the first place. Justice, in this sense, is to “make all things new.”

What I wished most, as I heard the man as he condemned people for their sins, was that he first consider what his message really sounded like to a people not bound for a concert held by one of the most influential Christian singers and songwriters in the world today. Unfortunately, it must sound like the kind of judgment and condemnation of which Christians are all too widely accused.

Wouldn’t our Gospel be so much more enticing to a lost and wandering world, if at the center were a God so full of mercy, so eager to forgive, as to not count costs? Is not our God greater than all the sacrifices or payments all the world could heap together, through all of time?

Justice and Mercy don’t have to be at odds. It could be that they are in imminent harmony, if only we readjusted our frame of reference. While it seems like payback is what God wants, perhaps we should consider the possibility that God’s forgiveness is of so high an order that he needs only our repentance, not our sacrifices or “burnt offerings,” and His embrace of us is so much the fuller.

Perhaps His mercy is able to merely forego lesser notions of justice and strive for a justice all the more sublime. A justice in which all faithful are restored to Him, bound up in the mercy and love that shine from the heart of the Risen Son.

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