The Mercy and Justice of God

I find God’s justice and mercy fascinating, not only because he perfectly embodies such qualities, but because we as human beings apparently have such a hard time reconciling them that we are apt to build a more selective image with only one of those qualities. Thus in the 17th century, it seems many were apt to forget God’s love and mercy in favour of his wrath and hatred of sin. Today we seem apt to commit the reverse error: we emphasise God’s love and mercy, but forget his justice and righteousness. In doing so, we not only build up a false image of God, but also diminish the quality of God we do remember. His justice and mercy are linked, for his justice is connected to his love and mercy for those we have sinned against. To paraphrase something I’ve said before, to be merciful without condition to predators is to be merciless to their victims. Hence God’s mercy is conditioned upon repentance. Likewise God’s desire for us to change and repent and follow him is based in his love and his desire for our exaltation: a love that never asks us to change or repent is one that would be content to leave us stuck in mediocrity, one that would ultimately be happy to sit back and watch us be damned.

A particular quote that I feel captures both God’s justice and his mercy was expressed by Joseph Smith. However, I often find it quoted with the second half missing, in keeping with the bias of our current era. So I thought it worth quoting in full:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

– Joseph Smith, 18 April 1842

 

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2 thoughts on “The Mercy and Justice of God

  1. David, thank you for your thoughts. I find them wonderful. I have thought about this post for some time now. I think you are spot on. The situation you speak of made me think that every sin committed would involve two people so I was wondering, if we don’t sin against another human but rather the sin we commit is done in private or alone (there could be a myriad of examples here but watch porn, have an alcoholic drink, tattoo yourself, cut yourself) who is the victim in this case? Would the person committing the sin be both the victim and the predator? How does justice and mercy work in these cases and why is it important that justice be served?

    • Thanks Kevin. Those are very good questions, and I don’t think I can give any complete answer. I think my initial suggestion would be that with such “private” sins, there are two affected parties. One, as you suggest, would be one’s own self: 1 Corinthians 16:18 in fact talks about how one “sinneth against his own body”, and while the KJV uses fornication as the sin in that verse, the Greek word involved (πορνεία – porneia) has a much wider meaning of sexual immorality. The second would be the Lord himself: as 1 Corinthians 16 goes on to elaborate “ye are not your own … For ye are bought with a price” (vv. 19-20). We are misusing things that God has given us, in many cases also purchased through the atonement, and of course for those of us who’s been so taught we’re knowingly disobeying his commandments and may be breaking covenants we’ve made with him. He can be an injured party too, so to speak.

      Furthermore, while the connection between his justice and mercy is not quite so obvious as in the case where our sins involve others (or their sins involve us), the scriptures seem to indicate that they are both connected:

      “Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.
      Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
      Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
      Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
      And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
      And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?”
      (Alma 42:16-21)

      The opportunity for divine mercy thus seems in part dependent upon the just operation of divine law, without which neither justice or mercy can do anything.

      A further thought is that God’s justice is also rooted in his righteousness; as a holy and righteous being God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31). Any “cheap” mercy which leaves us unchanged would ultimately leave us miserable in the presence of such a holy being (Mormon 9:3-4). In that sense the wrong sort of mercy would in itself be unmerciful – to us, the sinner – while justice, conversely, would be more merciful. In that sense, I think what I mention above about God’s love – that it demands change and repentance, because ultimately it’s not content to see us damned in mediocrity (or lower) – still applies.

      Hopefully these brief thoughts make some sense. Thank you for your questions.

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