God’s Justice and Mercy
by Fr. Godfrey Bushmaker, O.Praem.
“The servant who was ignorant of his master’s will, but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.” Words taken from the holy Gospel.
It is said that God’s justice and mercy are merely two aspects of the same reality. Our Lord’s teaching regarding the ignorant servant brings this reality into focus. No human judge could be more just or merciful than God. His divine knowledge discerns not simply the crime committed, but the exact degree that we were aware we were committing the crime and desirous of doing it. Thus, unlike human judges, He can restrict our responsibility to the portion of our activity which we understood was wrong. Any portion of the crime that we were unaware of or did not intend to happen mercifully goes unpunished, because under those specific aspects we didn’t choose to sin.
No human being burdened with the job of judging others (including priests in confession) can read their thoughts or intentions, and therefore, can never be as just and fair as God. They can only base their judgments on evidence that can be collected. Ignorance, emotions, pressure, or regret are rarely able to be demonstrated or taken into consideration in a courtroom—therefore, they seldom have a bearing on the jury’s verdict. However, God does take these circumstances into account, and so can render a more merciful judgment that reflects every single aspect of our condition.
It’s apparent to priests hearing confessions that the fundamental truth on which this teaching rests is often not understood by the faithful—namely, that in order to commit a sin, we must give the consent of our will—in other words, it must be a voluntary act. One can’t commit a sin by accident, out of ignorance, or by mistake. However, that being said, we do sin if we willingly put ourselves in those situations—and that often happens through allowing our lack of temperance in some area to cause us to neglect our duties: like our ongoing obligation to study our Faith.
Another truth that’s often misunderstood by penitents is the difference between a moral and physical evil. Moral evils are our sins—deliberately acting against our conscience to do something contrary to God’s law. Physical evils are comprised of all other evils, misfortunes, disasters, and the emotional and physical effects of other people’s sins. If someone strikes us on purpose it’s a moral evil for them, but for us on the “receiving end,” it’s a physical evil that we’ll have to suffer through.
Honest accidents are confessed in the sacrament all the time, even though, being physical evils, they’re not sins—though they could be a temptation to sin. Nevertheless, it’s best to think of these misfortunes as opportunities allowed by God to strengthen us in avoiding sin and help us grow in virtue and grace. These misfortunes (if born well) can thus result in a greater good than if the suffering had never taken place—and this is the reason God allows these evils to happen. God doesn’t cause suffering, but He does allow it and tweaks its circumstances for our spiritual good.
Although difficult to accept at times, we recognize that no amount of physical evil—whether it be disease, poverty, or natural disaster taking countless lives, can ever equal, in God’s eyes, the gravity of the smallest moral evil—like, for instance, the little white lies we tell without thinking.
Let us pray that we may better understand the malice of all deliberate sin and strive to rid ourselves of it. May we also make good use of every misfortune that affects us, including those springing from sin, that we may bring about the purpose for which it was allowed to be felt by us, by the merciful and just hand of God.
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