I guess I haven’t quite finished what I wanted to say about mercy, but can we ever finish on that inexhaustible topic? The appreciation of how high the Lord brings us by grace can only come with an understanding of how far we have fallen through sin. That’s why I said a few days ago that if we lose the sense of sin, the concept of mercy becomes practically meaningless. People today often speak rather glibly about the “merciful God,” evidently meaning that He is quite tolerant or doesn’t even really notice our sins or hold us accountable for them. Relax, God is merciful, don’t fret about repentance or confession. But nothing could be further from the truth of the merciful God.
To tolerate or overlook sin is not mercy. Do we think God is like us? He is not blind or senile, or confused about right and wrong. Mercy is not tolerance, it is forgiveness. It is not saying, “what you did is OK, or perhaps not too bad under the circumstances.” Mercy, like love, must be based on truth. God tells it like it is. He convicts us of wrongdoing, but in his mercy forgives, and therein lies the greatness of his loving heart.
In the writings of the prophet Jeremiah (can you tell I’ve been reading him lately?) this double aspect of the divine conviction of sin and the forgiveness thereof is expressed very clearly. We must know our sin to know our deliverance. Thus says the Lord: “Know for a certainty that I have warned you this day that you have gone astray…and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord your God” (Jer. 42:19-21). No room for excuses on our part, no “tolerance” on his. But what happens when we realize the truth and turn to the Lord? “Do not fear…says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you… I will grant you mercy…” (Jer. 42:11-12).
When divine love meets human sin, what happens is mercy. When human sinners recognize the love of God, what happens is repentance. Divine mercy plus human repentance equals the salvation of souls. We don’t really understand how horrible sin is, and so we don’t understand how marvelous forgiveness is. Thus we tend to live in the shadowland of not loving much and hence not being forgiven much. But we have to awaken to the truth. The texts of the Byzantine Office do not mince words: “The magnificence of Your glory, Your terrible loathing of evil, and the riches of Your compassion are beyond our power to comprehend.” God loathes evil, but since his love and compassion are boundless, He washes it all away when we turn to Him. Truly it is beyond our comprehension, but we can still live the mystery in faith, still try to perceive the horror of sin and the wonder of mercy.
That is the level on which we ought to live, for there the drama of our salvation is played out. Learn the meaning of mercy, and you will follow the Lord for the rest of your life.