One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?
Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.
A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.
The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).
The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.
In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.
So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.
In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.
As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.
Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.
So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.
A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.
Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.
So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.