The Mercy of God
“If God is infinitely merciful how can He condemn souls to hell?”
This common objection from our contemporaries is in fact an old one.1 St. Thomas already answered this very question2 by defining exactly what constitutes the mercy of God. We can also find a reflection of the divine mercy in the human soul, just as an artist’s perfection comes out in his artwork. But by the Incarnation God revealed Himself by Jesus Christ who expresses for us in a human way the love of God, who is rich in mercy.3 These are the good tidings preached to us for our salvation.
The Angelic Doctor’s Teaching
In the beginning of the Summa,4 when St. Thomas lays out for his students the answer to his life-long question, Who is God? we discover some well-defined qualities of God’s mercy.
Mercy5 supposes a certain misery or deficiency in someone. A person is said to have a merciful heart when he supplies what is lacking to his neighbor in such a way that he relieves the misery. This is a special way to exercise kindness towards our neighbor: by giving him what he is thirsting for. After covering the idea of love in God (Q. 20), St. Thomas speaks about justice and mercy in God, then about their consequences, providence (Q. 22), then predestination (Q. 23).
To be merciful is to have a heart saddened by another’s misery and to stop at nothing for its removal. Thus, God is supremely merciful since He heals the deficiency by bestowing the appropriate perfection. Searching for a clearer definition of mercy, St. Thomas sets it apart from other virtues. Mercy differs from justice, by which one imparts a perfection according to merit; it differs from liberality, by which one bestows a gift out of the goodness of one’s heart; whereas mercy consists precisely in communicating a perfection so as to remedy the entire deficiency.
Thus mercy does not work against justice, but on the contrary surpasses it. St. Thomas illustrates this in the case of a man who gives his neighbor not only the one thousand which is strictly owed, but two thousand in order to provide more securely for his neighbor’s needs. Mercy goes beyond justice especially when one forgives an injury. To forgive is to donate a gift which relieves the misery. Mercy is in a certain way6 the fullness of justice.
Mercy is found in all the works of God (Art. 4) although, strictly speaking, mercy is found only in the human heart inasmuch as it seeks to relieve the neighbor’s sadness felt as its own. Everything God does is just, since He does everything with due order. This divine justice towards creatures, says St. Thomas, supposes and is always primarily a consequence of His mercy. Creation itself is an effect of God’s mercy, since He has called us into being from nothingness, thereby filling the most radical deficiency, namely non-existence. Thus we acquire the status which makes any relation of justice possible.
This is a true pearl of wisdom in St. Thomas! The very benefit of creation makes us beneficiaries of God’s mercy. God mercifully introduced us in an order of justice. In her Liturgy the Church says: “In Thy Saints, Thou dost crown Thy own gifts!”7
God’s Image and Likeness
We admire the mercy of a mother or of a nurse who spends day and night tending the sick. Sickness and suffering provide us greater opportunities for kindness and compassion. Who does not think highly of the patience and zeal shown consistently by a good teacher to his students, multiplying the examples and the different approaches, in order to enlighten the ignorance and the closed minds of his students? Who put into their hearts this special love that leads them to take care of the least amiable to the point of preferring them to all the others?8
The Sacred Heart of Jesus
These shining examples pale in comparison with the reality of the merciful love of God for His creatures. When the Wisdom whose “delight is to be with the children of men”9 became Emmanuel, God revealed to us the extent of His mercy. Not only does Jesus manifest a particular love for children, for the youth, for the sick, but His compassion for sinners knows no bounds.10 He is the one who came to seek and save the Lost,11 “not to destroy, but to save.”12 He shows sympathy for the Samaritan woman, goodness to the adulterous woman, even becoming her advocate. He chooses St. Peter to be a fisher of men, of sinful men. Jesus rebukes the severity of Pharisees who are scandalized by seeing Him eat with the sinners: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, for I have come to call not the just, but sinners!”13 He suffers from seeing the lost sheep outside the sheepfold;14 He cries when he sees Magdalene in tears. His last address to Judas will be “friend”; He converts the heart of Peter by looking at him, reserving for him one of His first apparitions15 and the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. On the cross, His first prayer is for His executioners and the promise of paradise for the good thief. His parables manifest the same merciful preoccupation: the lost coin,16 the prodigal son,17 the lost sheep,18 even seeming to forget the angels and saints!19
And is not God’s mercy abundantly shown in the sacraments? We experience it primarily in the holy tribunal where the culprit is always acquitted, where God creates a new heart,20 which is a greater work than the creation of the entire universe.
Victim to Merciful Love
In conclusion let us consider and hopefully imitate the special way in which the greatest saint of modern times,21 St. Therese of the Child Jesus, had recourse to this merciful love of God.
She offered herself as a victim,22 not to God’s Justice, but to the merciful Love of God: “It seems to me that if You found souls offering themselves as sacrificial victims of Your love, You would consume them speedily and would rejoice to unloose those torrents of infinite tenderness You hold within Yourself.”
To offer oneself to the Merciful Love is therefore to open God’s own heart in order to receive no mere gift of material wealth, but nothing less than the often unrequited love that God is only too eager to provide.
Is this a privilege reserved for souls already advanced in perfection? Quite the contrary, as St. Therese explains: “What pleases Him is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in His Mercy. This is my only treasure. In order to love Jesus, to be His victim of love, the weaker one is, without desires or virtues, the more one is docile to the operations of this consuming and transforming Love.”
Herein lies the secret of her holiness, offered to all of us for our imitation: taking advantage of our miseries by appealing to the mercy of God.
1 Origen thought that God, because of His goodness, would save sinners from hell at the end of the world.
2 God, for His own part, has mercy on all. Since, however, His mercy is ruled by the order of His wisdom, the result is that it does not reach certain people who render themselves unworthy of that mercy, as do the demons and the damned who are obstinate in wickedness. And yet we may say that even in them His mercy finds a place, in so far as they are punished less than they deserve condignly, but not that they are entirely delivered from punishment. Suppl., Q. 99, Art. 2, ad 1.
3 Eph. 2:4.
4 St. Thomas, Summa, I, Q. 21.
5 In Latin, mercy is misericordia, literally: a heart opened to neighbor’s misery.
6 One could write a whole article on this use of “quasi” by St. Thomas.
7 Preface of the Saints.
8 Is it not common to see the mother having a special love for the weakest or the most rebellious of her children?
9 Prov. 8:31.
10 “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end” (Jn. 13:1).
11 Lk. 19:10.
12 Lk. 9:56.
13 Mt. 9:13.
14 Jn. 10:16.
15 As related by the Gospel, the first Apostle to see Jesus after the resurrection is St. Peter.
16 Lk. 15:8-10.
17 Lk. 15:11-32.
18 Lk. 15:4-7.
19 God loves certain people more than others (I, Q. 20, Art. 4). God is said to rejoice more over the penitent than over the innocent, (1) because often penitents rise from sin more cautious, humble, and fervent; (2) because gifts of grace, equal in themselves, are more as conferred on the penitent, who deserved punishment, than as conferred on the innocent, to whom no punishment was due (Ibid., ad 4).
20 “Cor mundum crea in me, Deus,” Psalm 50.
21 As referred to by Pope St. Pius X, 1907.
22 On the Feast of the Holy Trinity, June 9, 1895.