His Justice Is Perfected in His Mercy
In the ancient Syriac conception, there is no contradiction whatever between the justice of God and His mercy. Rather, they are both aspects of God’s goodness, and His divine plan for salvation. To take one without the other is to separate out dimensions of the unity of God: we must do so because we only have human minds, yet we should also remember that, in God, these qualities are one.
St Ephrem (c.306-373), an older contemporary of St Maroun, devoted the fifth of his Hymns on the Church to exploring the mystery of the relation between God’s mercy and His justice. Incidentally, although they also used prose, the use of hymns to develop what we would call theological ideas is one of the marks of ancient Syriac thought. It was, among other matters, a way of teaching the people the truths of their religion in a memorable form. In this hymn, Ephrem wrote: “… although the sea of goodness is full of mercy, no drop of mercy will fall, on the Day of Judgment, to those who do not repent.”
That is, God’s mercy is infinite, but in its fullness it will not and cannot be known until the Day of Judgment, when it will be poured out upon those repent, and only upon those.
This follows from several considerations. First, and most obviously, the aim of the goodness of God in dealing with us is to bring our souls to a point where they are conformed to His Goodness, His Beauty, and His Truth. God wishes that we be remade according to His image and likeness, which have been disfigured by sin.
So, to understand mercy and justice, the idea of a courtroom is insufficient: it is not just a question of deciding what a person deserves; the divine plan of salvation involves the refashioning of the soul so that a person is made relatively worthy of dwelling in the Presence of God. This fact alone shows the need for mercy to perfect the work of justice: for while justice gives to each what he deserves, none of us can say that he deserves to enjoy the beatific vision for eternity. But God in His mercy grants us that, when we have repented and so are able to bear His mercy.
To express this in any way we can understand, it is necessary to speak in terms of chronological development: we are schooled by justice and condign punishment, and then when this has done its work, we are redeemed in His mercy. And Ephrem does speak in this way. But it is only a way of speaking. In reality, God is forever dealing with us according to both His justice and His mercy. As stated, we see them as different only because we have limited and hence diverse perspectives upon His Goodness. If on some occasions we saw the front of something large, and on other occasions we saw only its back, we might not realise that they are part of a whole too large for us to see. So, the Syriac tradition suggests, it is and must be when we ponder God.
Ephrem also proposes that there is a mercy even in God’s justice because He could simply have left us alone, but rather, in His mercy, has disclosed to us His justice and His condign punishment. Hence, in the Maronite Divine Liturgy we refer to how God, like a good father, came seeking for us. Now, if it is an act of mercy to discipline someone who is in need of discipline, then God’s mercy is also perfected in His justice.
We should never presume upon the mercy of God, states Ephrem, or think that we can dispense with seeking holiness and forswearing sin. But a contrite soul cultivates the virtues needed to be able to bear what Ephrem calls His “strong mercy,” for purity cannot exist where there is impurity. Incidentally, although I have no reason to believe that he knew of Ephrem’s work, C.S. Lewis arrived at a very similar position.
To summarise, God’s justice is made perfect in His mercy, and His mercy is made perfect in His justice, because both are aspects of His mysterious goodness. He disciplines us that we may become know, love, and serve Him to the degree that we are able. But even the best of us is still human, and to leap the gap between our limits and His infinity is beyond us. None of us, not even the best and purest, can climb to heaven unaided. His mercy can be thought of as the helping hand which lifts us above the top rung of the ladder into the Divine Presence and its perfect ecstasy.