Whether to Emphasize God’s Justice or His Mercy

This topic came to the fore of my mind recently while having a talk with my father on the burial of suicides.  I brought up the fact that suicides were much fewer in number when they were forbidden a place on hallowed ground.  This very practice highlighted the gravity of suicide, i.e. damning in and of itself.  My father brought forward that there may be many extenuating circumstances (mental illness, extreme pain, or the threat of extreme pain) in each individual case, which diminish the suicide’s culpability.  Also, the mercy of God is beyond imagining.  Contrary to the opinion of the Church of the Middle Ages, we cannot be sure that every suicide is in hell.  I countered, but, does that not diminish the seriousness of the sin in most people’s eyes?  I might have even added that we now have people who hold suicide as a natural right or that suicides might now understand that they can gain the Kingdom without carrying their cross.

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We went forth back and forth on this issue, I emphasizing justice and my father mercy, which leads us to the interesting topic of which of these attributes should be emphasized.  (If you were curious, yes, I was playing devil’s advocate above: suicides ought to receive a Christian burial because God’s mercy is infinitely greater than human wickedness–even in the case of something as final as suicide.) Many say that we can reasonably assume that most are saved.  Others, however, contend that this lackadaisical attitude toward salvation causes many to be damned.  Rather, it is reasonable to assume that most or even all penitents are saved, but most of humanity do not seek or even want God’s forgiveness.

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Hope rather than reason leads people to expect most are saved.  The concept reason understands best is justice.  It makes more sense for a person to be punished for the evil he does than to be let off.  And, woe to the society that refrains from punishing the wicked at least to some extent!  Under Draco’s laws, crime in Athens fell; under the Labour Party of England’s laxity, London became the crime capital of the Western world.  God sometimes has to smack persons and societies on the head lest they persist in crime or the majority, since sin goes unpunished, see no need for virtue.

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But, by the same token that justice is reasonable and mercy suprarational, we ought to emphasize God’s mercy more than His justice.  In the face of possibly hundreds of years of Purgatory or eternal punishment in hell, God’s mercy may more easily be forgotten than His justice.  As people consider the the punishments for sin and how they constantly sin, it is much more easy to fall into despair than presumption.

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In truth, mercy and justice ought never to be separated.  As the medieval Gloss says, “Justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice profusion.” Still, an edge must be given to mercy, the Crown of God’s works.  No one has a right to despair when Our Lord, as he said to St. Gertrude the Great, would go through His cruel Passion once again if it were necessary for the sake of a single soul–if somehow that soul were not covered in his original Passion.  We should always look to Christ Crucified if we despair–and the Same if we presume too much!  For, Christ has all the grace to humble the presumptuous and exalt the despairing.

Happy Trinity Sunday!

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5 comments on “Whether to Emphasize God’s Justice or His Mercy

  1. Gaheret says:

    So interesting. I would say that there are other arguments in favor of the burial of the suicide outside the cementery besides pre-judging their eternal damnation: suicide has an almost hypnotic, obsessive quality that easily preys on the sad and overwhelmed. Thus, the suicide must always be put apart, in a way, to protect those among us who are fragile. I know that extenuating circumstances exist and therefore do not judge, but yet, the suicidal does immense harm to others.

    All remains must be destroyed if possible. Whenever there’s a suicide in a mental institution, the security measures are immediatly reinforced. A novel like “Werther” by Goethe (or that “13 reasons why” crap, by the way) ought to be burned, because it starts trends of suicides. Every bridge, tree or railway where there’s been suicide is likely to see more happening. Suicide is epidemic among Western youngsters, but individual cases are rightfully silenced in the news, because they start trends too. “Right to suicide” is the nonsense of all nonsenses: in my view, it belongs to the category of claims who “doesn´t merit to arguments, but to slaps” under Aristotle. It´s like claiming the right to be sold as a slave. Mercy here means constraining and fighting; false compassion is lethal.

    You rightfully said once in this blog that suicide is often the last work of the devil in a soul who takes his way, and as a sign it has an undoubtely satanical quality on it, even when it´s not a guilty decision. If there´s one thing I think we must fight to the last consequences, it´s certainly self-destruction. It´s like the perfect opposite of giving your life.

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  2. Gaheret says:

    About God´s Justice and Mercy, I agree they ought never to be separated. Personally, the more I understand, the more Justice reveals itself as a form of Mercy, and the more “loving God, loving others” encompasses all the Law and the Prophets. This means Mercy and Love are the key to interpret Justice, not the other way around: truth instead of lies, pure love instead of lust, generosity instead of greed, kindness instead of cruelty. Also that, were mercy unjust (and away from Truth), it would not be real mercy, but the worst possible cruelty ever: if I help your self-destruction, I´m cruel, not kind. A man can do this, but God? It would be horrible. This is what I didn´t like form Scorsese´s “Silence”: if God leaded you to sin like that, He may as well stab you. But He won´t. And if the man is to never stop being free and never stops rejecting Him, that means Hell is necessary in a world ruled by Love.

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    • Yes, mercy without a sense of justice behind it is just permissiveness. I would say that justice is an easier concept to grasp than mercy: one has to realize what one’s sins deserve before one can be truly grateful for receiving mercy. But then, love and mercy temper justice so it does not go to excess. Also, the more one realizes the mercy one has been shown, the more inclined one is to be merciful to others from a sense of justice.

      I keep reading about how problematic the movie Silence is and that the author of the book, Endo Shuusaku, had some questionable theology. But, I did like Shuusaku’s The Samurai a lot, and nothing seemed wrong with it theologically. So, I wonder if the author only stepped outside of bounds in this one novel?

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      • Gaheret says:

        That´s pretty common. Good, deep Christian novelists fight to present Grace in dramatic, unexpected ways, doing “Christian tales from the land of the enemy”, and when they hit the point the work is astonishing, but is a thin line, so the whole thing can turn up as “interesting-but-heterodox”. For example, I love how Dostoyevski paints the action of Grace in his characters (attacks on Poland and Catholicism aside), but I´m sure that something about The Idiot is wrong (that “Russian God” idea, that lack of strenght or sense of fatalism or whatever…). Or Gertrud Von Le Fort: The Last at the Scaffold shines with the mistery of God´s ways, but her Crown of the Angels, pursuing the same, ends up in a way I find not Catholic. And Graham Greene, Flannery O´Connor… they are more or less like that. I love their work, though. They are always interesting. Haven´t read Endo yet, but Charles from Beneath the Tangles has, and has an article on them both.

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      • It is hard to describe the actions of God’s grace and mercy. I recall the story involving how St. John Vianney consoled the grieving widow of a man who committed suicide. Apparently, the man was a Freemason, and one day jumped from a bridge. Months later, the widow visited Ars, Vianney picked her out of the crowd, and said to her “He is saved: the distance between the bridge and the water is long enough for a good act of contrition.” Apparently, the flowers her husband gave her so that she might decorate a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary earned him the grace of final repentance even at that moment.

        God can do all things, so a novelist can break tons of rules when describing the action of grace and get away with it. 🙂 I’ll have to get my hands on some Gertrud Von Le Fort, I’ve never heard of that author.

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