God Is Mercy

God Is Mercy May 23, 2023

Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht: Mercy Seat / picryl

St. Leo the Great pointed out that God works with us, indeed, with the whole world, with mercy. God’s love is long-suffering and patient. God never desires to punish us but rather, to find a way for us to receive every grace we need to overcome the consequences of our sins. Nonetheless, Leo also explained, God does not force us to do so. If we don’t embrace God’s mercy and grace, we will have to face the punishment which we make for ourselves:

In spite of all these things, God remains well disposed toward everyone. To no one does he deny his mercy. Why, he even bestows many good things indiscriminately upon all. He prefers to invite with acts of kindness those whom he could rightly subdue with punishments. Delay in retribution makes room for repentance. It cannot be said, however, that there is no vengeance where conversion does not take place. For, a hard and ungrateful mind becomes already its own punishment. It suffers in its conscience whatever has been deferred by the goodness of God. [1]

God’s mercy is such that God will do all that is possible to delay or lessen the consequences of our sins. Yet, when we experience it, we must understand we do so as a result of our own actions and not as a result of some direct punishment from God. For, because God does not compel us to accept mercy, to let grace transform us and help heal us from our own self-inflicted wounds, God allows us to receive the retribution which we create for ourselves, one which comes to us from our minds. This is one of many reasons why the ultimate consequence of sin, eternal perdition, is a state of mind, a condition which we experience and create for ourselves.

God continuously offers us grace, and in doing so, constantly gives us the chance to change our ways, to open ourselves to grace, and with it, turn ourselves away from sin. God works, that is, to counter the retribution or punishment which we make for ourselves. We construct the hell-state for ourselves. If we open ourselves up to grace during its construction, that grace will work to take down that structure, so that, when we fully open ourselves to grace and turn away from all sin (in the eschaton, if not in our temporal life), we will become full of grace and the joys which grace brings. That is, we will experience the glory of the kingdom of God.

God does not force us to be receptive of grace, that is, God does not force us to transform ourselves and follow after the way of love and the good which it brings. Rather, God provides the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. Despite what we do, despite whatever sin we might be guilty of, God’s love has God remain at our side, always offering us the love and grace which we need. There is no one God created whom God intended to suffer. There is no one God created whom God wants to lose. Everyone was created by God out of love to experience God’s love, to take it in and become a representation of that love themselves. For, as St. Isaac of Syria says:

Through grace he has brought the world into being, and through mercy he guides its affairs. Although daily we cause grief to his compassion through the variety of our infatuation with evils, yet his love does not cease from devising immense benefits concerning us day by day, and increasing things that are going to help us, while at the same time he is> well aware of the mode of life to which he is going to raise us: then there will become known to us the wealth of the exalted love of the Creation, when after these <present> modes of life, which cause fruits of excellence that pass away, or ones that await total perdition – or something I do not know how to describe: when after these things, again, in what splendor he will establish our creation from the dust and to what likeness and resplendent glory will he draw all of us up and bring us to become gods and the sons of God! [2]

It is imperative we keep this in mind. God is love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:7-21), and through that love, God is long-suffering, desiring no one shall perish but that all might come to partake of the divine nature, to be deified, and experience the abundant life of becoming a god-by-grace. God is not out to get us. God does not selfishly guard the divine nature, making sure creation will have no share of it or its bounty. This is what Christianity teaches us. We must not think of God as some sort of cruel tyrant who is difficult to please. This is something which the prophets came to understand with their own experience of God and God’s pathos. Yes, God is great, and in that greatness, frightening, but God in that greatness, has shown no desire for sacrifice from us to appease God and gain mercy for ourselves; rather, God is freely offering such mercy to the world:

The words of Hosea, confirmed by Jesus Christ, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Matt. ix, 13), marks a turning point in religious ideas. When primitive man offered up his sacrifices he thought that God required them just as he, man, required the divine clemency; according to this conception the deity did, indeed, give life to man, but also lived himself, so to say, at man’s expense. The voice of God spoke against this idea; “I will have mercy and not sacrifice”  means that God does not want what we offer to him, but he does want to give us what he gives us. [3]

The incarnation shows the fulfillment of this. Instead of humanity having to sacrifice something to appease God, God the Word shows the willingness to be sacrificed in order to appease humanity, overcoming the separation between God and humanity:

For our Lord and Savior willed to illuminate all places in order to have mercy on all. He came down from heaven to earth in order to visit the world.  He down further to the lower world in order to illumine those who were being held in the lower world, in accordance with the statement of the prophet who said, “You who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, a light has arisen for you” [Isa 9:2]. [4]

God, as God can be named and known by God’s actions, truly can be named as mercy, so long, of course, we recognize this name, as with all other names of God, rely upon God’s works and not God’s essence. For God, in relation to the divine essence and the glory found in it, is beyond all names. Once we know God as mercy, we must realize the implication of this. God truly is there for us. Wherever there is need for mercy, God is there offering it. God is the willing sacrifice, showing us that we do not need to appease some arbitrary expectations of a tyrannical deity but rather that God seeks to appease us, giving us everything, so that we can truly then find our way to the glory which God intended us to have, the glory of the kingdom of God and the deification which comes from it.

[1] St Leo the Great, Sermons. Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland CSJB and Agnes Josephine Conway SSJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 153-4 [Sermon 35].

[2] St. Isaac of Nineveh, Headings on Spiritual Knowledge (The Second Part, Chapters 1-3). Trans. Sebastian Brock (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022), 163 [Chapter 3; Third Discourse].

[3] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 36.

[4] St. Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermons and Tractates on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (New York: Newman Press, 2018), 60 [Sermon 16].


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