As Christians and simply as people, we often want to set the qualities of justice and mercy in opposition to one another. Justice is defined as “getting what you deserve”. It’s associated with law, punishment and retribution. Our personification of her is shown as blindfolded and wielding a sword, the implication being that she doesn’t care who she wounds. Justice is often thought of as hard, unfeeling, even callous.
Mercy, on the other hand, is defined as “not getting what you deserve”. It’s often thought of as tender, caring, concerned for people, the epitome of love and kindness. Soft-hearted, associated with restoration and second chances. We often think of them as polar opposites, and a lot of the time we like mercy a lot better than we like justice.
What I want to do in this post is examine them as two sides of the same coin. I want to show that, far from opposing one another, the two ideas actually support and underpin one another. God is a God of justice and of mercy. In this post I want to look at some of why He must be both.
Mercy, “not getting what you deserve”, presumes the idea of justice. Absent from a context of justice in which you generally get what you deserve, not getting what you deserve just becomes random chance. There’s no guarantee of acquittal for the innocent or punishment for the guilty; it’s just a roll of the dice. However the judge is feeling that day. Power to the strong. Whatever happens, happens; nothing can or should be done about it. Que sera, sera. No justice. In this context, there can be no mercy, because mercy represents a deliberate choosing to set aside the punishment required by law. It becomes meaningless to say that we receive mercy, because no-one gets what they deserve.
As I write this, I am realising how much fatalism denies the idea of justice, and more of why I hate fatalism. Fatalism says that whatever happens is the Will of God, Fate, Makhtub, Kismet. In this thinking, everything that happens is what ought to happen, because God has willed it. You can’t fight the Will of God; all you can do is knuckle under to the circumstances and “submit” to it. Yes, Islam, I’m looking at you.
The problem is that we live in a fallen world in which people can and do act evilly. Men oppress one another, steal from one another, commit murders and rapes and all sorts of other crimes. If everything that happens is Fate, then nothing ought to be done about this. It’s already written. It’s God’s Will. You can’t fight Fate.
What kind of monster is this God? Certainly not the God of the Bible, Who “does not leave the guilty unpunished”. God’s justice is as fundamental to His character as His mercy. The fact that we crave justice, want to see it done, get offended when it is not seen to be done, points to the existence of justice as a fundamental idea. My father-in-law often gets riled at British police dramas on TV, because they have a tendency toward producing situations where justice cannot be done, for whatever reason. A thorough-going devotee of the idea of justice, this offends him. It ought to. That’s the point. The screenwriters are deliberately playing on the latent desire to see justice done in order to produce a righteous anger at injustice.
But this idea of justice is not as incompatible with mercy as we are sometimes led to believe. Justice without mercy is pretty unpleasant: harsh, cruel and unconcerned with anything beyond a blind dishing-out of consequences. A blindfolded woman swinging a sword indiscriminately. It’s just as fatalistic in its own way. What goes around, comes around. If bad things happen to you it’s your fault. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Karma. Yes, Hinduism, I’m looking at you.
Mercy has also been defined as the outworking of compassion. Seeing someone in need and wanting to help. Without mercy, justice is reduced to a terrifying set of scales in which we are all weighed in the balance and found wanting. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. And another eye, and another eye, until we are all blind and toothless. Without mercy for the victim, how can justice truly be just? Without an acknowledgment that there might be mitigating circumstances, all we are left with is a blind cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance.
Justice untempered by mercy actually becomes unjust, in other words. It cannot exist on its own; the cycle of vengeance is not true justice but a parody. The cycle of Karma is not true justice but a parody. Mercy underpins justice as much as justice underpins mercy. Compassion is the foundation of both; they are two sides of the same coin. God cannot be the God of either unless He is the God of both.
What I’m really glad about is that “Mercy triumphs over judgment”. Mercy includes the capacity to set aside retribution for the sake of compassion. Not a denial of justice, but a setting aside of punishment. Because justice as well as mercy is an outworking of compassion, God has to be both just and merciful. Compassion sees both sinner and sinned-against with love, and finds a way to do right by both. Not minimising the extent of the wrongdoing and thus being unjust and hard-hearted toward the victim, but not denying the intrinsic value of the sinner either, for that shows a lack of compassion and opens the door to the blind injustice of the cycles of vengeance. God’s compassion on sinful humanity finds a way to satisfy justice and pardon the sinner, not papering over evil or denying its true effects, but acknowledging the full depths of the problem and actually doing something about it. In this run-up to Easter, I’m reminded that the Cross is a demonstration of justice as well as mercy. Sin gets what it deserves, but there is mercy for the sinner. And one cannot exist without the other.
God must be both just and merciful. Otherwise, He is neither.