His Mercy Endures Forever!
Rooted recently in the revelations received by St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930’s, the focus on God’s Mercy is certainly no innovation of the last century. The psalmist, writing hundreds of years before Christ, was already proclaiming that “[God’s] mercy endures forever.” Nonetheless, by God’s Providence, after centuries of perhaps losing sight of the prodigal nature of God’s forgiveness and compassion, the Church has refocused our attention on exactly this, the Divine Mercy.
We cannot proclaim God’s mercy without also showing mercy in our lives. In the Diary of St. Faustina, we read that Jesus told her, “Be always merciful as I am merciful. Love everyone out of love for Me, even your greatest enemies, so that My mercy may be fully reflected in your heart” (Diary #1695). We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, we pray a curse upon ourselves if we refuse mercy to others! James warns us of exactly this when he wrote, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy…” (James 2:13a).
There is little in recent Christian history that moves me as much as Pope St. John Paul II’s meeting with his would-be assassin in prison, at which he offered forgiveness. He did not wait for an expression of sorrow. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Jesus knows we are not perfect, that we struggle to grow in virtue. He knows that we strive and fail over and over again. He knows our weaknesses. By God’s grace we will continue to be perfected and we will reach our full stature in Christ. But this is not what Jesus was talking about here. In context, Jesus was equating God’s perfection with mercy, with loving even our enemies. “[Your heavenly Father]… makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust… So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45,48). It is no wonder that Luke captures the same conversation with Jesus in different words: “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Notice the radical, prodigal nature of God’s mercy? It doesn’t match up well with our human conceptions. We often want to limit it and even control it. We want God to be merciful, but not against the demands of our human conception of justice. It bothers us that the sun shines on the unjust. It wouldn’t if we were in charge! It offends our sense of justice that it rains on the wicked. Let them suffer a drought! We have problems with the idea that to God, forgiveness itself meets the demands of justice, mercy is truly just. James wrote, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b), but we often want judgment (not for ourselves, of course!) We want God to be merciful, but on our terms. And, no matter how subtle we are in expressing it, our terms come down to this: we want God to be merciful only to those we think deserve it. And just like that, we are no longer following Christ.
To be a Christian means to acknowledge that God redeemed us while we were undeserving. God did not wait until we demonstrated sufficient sorrow to send a Savior. Christ sacrificed for us while we were still his enemies (Romans 5:10). We like the story of Christ’s forgiveness of the Good Thief, perhaps because in our conception of justice and mercy he was deserving of forgiveness. But God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9) and our sense of who deserves mercy is completely overturned by Christ when he looks upon those murdering him (and, by extension, every sinner whose failure to love has put Christ on the cross) and prays to the Father, “Forgive them… they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This destroys our sense of justice. We want repentance first, and we think Christ does too. We want signs of contrition, and we think Christ does too. We want people to deserve mercy before it is offered, and we think we are following Christ in this. But we aren’t. Christ forgives us preemptively; we have only to claim his mercy. In the simple prayer taught by Our Lord to St. Faustina, we simply say, “Jesus, I trust in You!” It is for this reason that St. Thérèse of Lisieux—Doctor of the Church and “the greatest saint of modern times” (Pope St. Pius X)—was able to say, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but love and mercy?”
If our mercy is to be like God’s, if we are to be perfect as God is perfect, we must forgive those precisely who are not deserving. We shouldn’t wait for acts of contrition and for “I’m sorry.” We should let the sun of our mercy shine on the unjust, and the shower of our forgiveness rain down on the wicked. We should say even of those who are our enemies and those who have hurt us, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” The world’s sense of justice has never brought anything but division, violence, and vengeance. By proclaiming and living God’s radical life of preemptive mercy, we become Christ’s reconciling presence in the world. Preemptive mercy as an act of love—foolish as it may seem, unjust as it may appear to our human minds—will draw people to the heart of God and bring peace, reconciliation, and unity.
So what are we to do? Be foolish like Christ! Offer mercy to the undeserving, because it is offered to us undeserved as well. And whenever mercy and justice seem to compete, as they sometimes do in the human mind and in the complexity of this world, err on the side of mercy.