O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
This glorious couplet opens Psalm 136, the triumphant shout of praise for God’s mercy that Pope Francis draws our attention to at the beginning of Misericordiae Vultus, his declaration of the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. The psalm announces a work of God and then declares “for his mercy endures forever.” Francis comments that it “seems to break through the dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love” (§7). It’s easy to see what the Holy Father means when the psalmist is talking about God heaping good things on his chosen people, but some verses make God’s mercy sound, well, unmerciful:
The firstborn of the Egyptians he smote,
for his mercy endures forever…
Nations in their greatness he struck,
for his mercy endures forever.
Kings in their splendor he slew,
for his mercy endures forever
God’s mercy smites the firstborn? God’s mercy strikes down nations? God’s mercy slays kings? Is this the same mercy that is “the very foundation of the Church’s life” (§10), that comes from Jesus’ “merciful gaze” and enables us to “experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity” (§8)? The same mercy that comes from the “Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy” (§9)?
In short, yes. God is not at war with himself, constantly fighting between a thirst for vengeance and a yearning for forgiveness. In the infinite perfection of his love, God “orders all things sweetly” (Wis 8:1), directing the progress of the whole created world so that human beings may, through the redemption won in Jesus Christ, be brought to the unimaginable splendor of sharing in God’s own life (cf. 2 Pt 1:4). The inexpressible mercy of God’s action in bringing us to salvation includes, and even works through, the punishment of evil. Let’s look a little more closely at exactly what that means.
Committing a sin is like sticking your hand on a hot stove: it hurts. The pain at a physical burn is immediate and obvious, and helps make sense of why pain exists at all; when I feel pain, I know what I just did is not good for my body, so I stop doing it. Sin likewise causes a real harm in my life and in the lives of those around me, although because the human heart is complex and sin can be very subtle, I may not feel the consequences as immediately and obviously as I do when I burn myself.
Here’s where the punishment for sin comes in. A person who is very far from God may not be aware of the causal relationship between the wrong he does and the wounds in his life and those around him; if on a particular occasion he is able to experience very strongly the consequences of his evil actions, and know that he is the cause of his own misfortune, that may be a wake-up call for him to turn away from sin and accept God’s ever-present offer of grace.
Because God wants the best for us not just right now but throughout our whole lives and on through eternity, God in his mercy might allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, so that we can learn to reject the bad and choose the good. It would be infantilizing, not merciful, for God to make us immune to the evil we do, because we would have no incentive to cast off our childish sins and become adults in the Lord.
God in his mercy smites the firstborn, strikes down nations, and slays kings because God takes human actions seriously: he doesn’t just let us pretend everything’s fine when our home is burning around us. But even the punishment that God allows us to suffer is given to us in the mode of mercy. For one thing, we never suffer the full punishment we actually deserve—St. Thomas says that even the damned in hell receive God’s mercy, alleviating their punishment from what strict justice would require. But more importantly, when we experience the punishment for our sins on this earth, our very suffering is a revelation of mercy, a revelation that we never escape God’s providence; the fact that God allows us to feel the effects of our sins means that he is actively caring for us, watching over us, continuing to be with us even when we have abandoned him.
This is the message of mercy: God is still with you, God is giving you the means to be healed, God has redeemed your disobedience and lack of love with the perfect obedience and perfect love of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Our sins in their splendor he slew. For his mercy endures forever.
Image: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire