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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Mercy of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is one divine attribute that we spontaneously associate with Christ and Christianity it is the attribute of mercy. Mercy, we may safely say, is the distinctive quality of being a Christian: to be a Christian is to be merciful. There are many reasons for this. One reason cannot be that the word mercy, just as a word, is so common in the New Testament. I counted the number of times mercy and justice occur in the New Testament. By actual count, justice is used almost three times as often as the word mercy in the New Testament. This is not a matter of arithmetic; it is a matter of spirit. The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of mercy.
Pope John Paul II went so far as to say that "Jesus Christ is the incarnation of divine mercy." Surely Christ is the incarnation of God. But among the divine attributes which most distinguishes who Christ is at the incarnation of the Godhead, none identifies Christ more concretely and distinctively than mercy.
Our scope in this conference is to cover three areas of a subject which is as vast as our faith. First, what does the Church understand by mercy? Then, how is Christ really incarnate divine mercy? And then very pertinently, how do we not only have the option but the obligation of responding to the profound mystery of the mercy of God who became Man out of love for us?
What is mercy? It comes in two stages. First stage. Mercy is love shown not only to those who are in need. Mercy is love shown not only to those who are in want. Need expresses the real objective absence or lack in someone. Want is rather the subjective, the psychological desire to get whatever a person wants. Can people need what they don't want? Yes. Objectively they may need many things which subjectively they may not want. Do people want things which they don't need? Do they ever! Nevertheless this is not a clever distinction.
Mercy is meeting people's needs; it also is meeting people's subjective wants. Did the Mother of Mercy practice the love shown to those who are in want? We would hardly say that there was an objective need at the marriage feast in Cana. People want certain kinds of food but they are not on a strict cardiac diet; nevertheless people do have tastes. I am loving them mercifully when I am trying to meet even their psychological or subjective wants, though by strict medical logic they may not need what they so obviously want.
Second stage. I cannot exaggerate the importance of understanding our faith clearly in order to live it properly. Mercy is love shown not only to those in need or love shown not only to those who are in want, but mercy is love shown to those who are not lovable. Are there lovable people in need? Are all lovable people in need lovable? Mercy is love shown to those who do not deserve to be loved, they don't have a claim on my love, in fact maybe just the opposite. What they deserve from me is rejection.
Mercy is love shown to those who do not love - that is as far as we can tell. Mercy is love shown to those who have rejected our love. We've tried three times or thirty times. Remember Peter's question to Christ? "How often shall I forgive my brother? Seven times?" Christ using an Aramaic figure, said, "AS often as he has wronged you." Mercy is loving rejected love. No one in their right mind or heart, apart from the grace of God, can do this. It is impossible naturally to love people who have rejected our love of them.
Mercy is love shown to those who have been unjust to the one who now is suppose to love them. Mercy is shown not only to those who fail in love but to those who fail in justice, those who cheat us, those who steal from us.
This lineup that I have shared with you is based on the present Holy Father's masterful encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" - "Rich in Mercy."
Described in this way, we see that mercy is no ordinary love. There are three levels to altruism, three levels to giving to others: the lowest level is justice; a higher level is love; the highest level is mercy. Mercy therefore is love because it goes beyond justice. I am just when I give someone what that person has a claim to. They vote for me, I give them a salary; I pay them, I owe them, that is justice. But I love when I give to someone who has no claim on my giving. Notice the difference. Love implies not only that I give what I do not owe, but when as mercy I give when someone else owes me. Mercy, therefore, is love twice over. Mercy is love to someone in need; it is also love to someone who has no claim on my love.
Jesus Christ is the incarnation of divine mercy. We begin with the premise of our faith: that God did not have to create the world. We dare not use the word justice about God having to create the world. Only God has to exist. The creation of the world is the fruit of divine love, sheer goodness on God's part, no necessity on his part, no benefit to God, no profit to him. But then mankind sinned and still sins. Nevertheless God does not cease to love a sinful human race.
The moment we say a sinful human race we are talking about sinners who have rejected the advances of God's love. God, in loving men after men had rejected the love of God, if God is still going to love men, it is no longer love. It is not the kind of love that God has when he first brought the world into being. If we didn't have a word we would have to create it. We have to find some intelligible symbol or expression to identify God's love for the human race which had no claim on God's love because he has rejected God and that is redemption.
Creation is the proof of God's selfless love for mankind. Redemption is the evidence of God's selfless mercy towards mankind. Remember, the difference between love and mercy - here on the part of God - is that God's mercy is not only his love, it is his love in spite of not being loved. That is where we stand. Except for God's mercy we had no more claim on God's love. If he continues to love us even though we have sinned, it is only because of his undeserved (on our part) mercy.
Jesus Christ, the incarnation of divine mercy. We have seen that creation is a manifestation of divine love, that redemption is a proof of divine mercy. Does God owe anyone a continuing love after a person has sinned gravely, sinned mortally? God does not have to love us. He didn't have to. If he had not, we would not exist. But we having sinned, and not just the whole human race but individually, personally, might God have deprived the whole human race of heaven or the beatific vision after the fall of Adam and Eve?
When Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race, rejected God's love they lost the supernatural life which they had received when they were first created. They sinned and, as Genesis tells us, they were driven out of Paradise. We are not talking in strange symbolic or metaphorical language. When our first parents sinned, they lost the life of God in their souls, and by losing it for themselves they also lost it for their posterity. Could God in strict justice have abandoned the human race until the end of time of not attaining or enjoying the beatific vision? The answer is yes. That's our faith.
God might have in his justice, having allowed our first parents to sinned, lose the friendship of God and therefore the title to heaven for themselves and for all their descendants - that's what original sin is - God might have abandoned the human race until the end of time of not attaining or enjoying the beatific vision. There is one article of our Catholic faith that we should hold on to for dear supernatural life, it is our belief in original sin. Since our first parents no human being with two exceptions: the Son of God in his human nature and his Mother Mary, every other human being, since the dawn of human history and it will be until the end of human history, comes into the world in the state of separation from God otherwise known as the state of sin.
We know that God in his mercy has shown his love for the human race by sending us his only-begotten Son so that he, by his suffering and death, might regain that life which we absolutely need.
When our body dies either our soul is also alive supernaturally or we will suffer what John calls the second death. The first death is the separation of the soul from the body; the second death is the separation of God from the soul. And if our soul is separated from God when the body dies that soul will remain separated from God for all eternity. That is your faith and mine.
God's mercy in the person of Jesus Christ, therefore, is first of all the mercy that God has shown in the most extreme way, what we might call the divine imaginable. God went to the divine limits of showing his merciful love by becoming Man and then dying on the Cross to save us from that everlasting death to which we would have had a right had Christ not come into the world.
But let's make this divine mercy much more personal. Because as we come to see our responsibility in practicing mercy in our lives, the mercy we are to show is not only mercy in general, it is mercy in particular. God's mercy towards us has been a very particular mercy. Not only did our first parents sin and God showed mercy to the human race by restoring mankind, giving them the right to be reinstated in his grace, although each one of us, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve come into the world in the state of sin, by now there are oceans of sin that have accumulated in the thousands of years of sinful human history. To relieve mankind from all that sin God became Man and thereby practiced divine mercy.
God became man, our faith requires us to say it, he became Man not only to save the human race, which he did, he became Man to save me, to redeem me. God is my Savior. I have sinned, I have lost all claim on God's love. St. Ignatius tells his sons to tell the people to whom we give retreats, "Tell them to compare the justice that God visited on the fallen angels when they rejected God in the person of Lucifer who in angelic language cried out: 'Non serviam, I will not serve.' Tell them when we have grievously sinned, God might have right then and there cut us off from life." In other words this mercy that God has been showing to us is an ongoing mercy; it has been a prolonged mercy; it is a mercy that God has shown to us from the first moment that we sinned to the present moment. All of this is locked up in what we believe when we say that God became Man and died on the Cross in order to show his mercy not only to a sinful mankind but to a very deeply sinful me.
Our response. Nothing which we believe is ever meant to remain only in the believing mind. We believe indeed with the intellect, but everything we believe is to pass through the corridor of the intellect into the will. We are to act on our faith, we are to put our faith into practice, we are to live what we believe. We believe in God's unspeakable mercy in the person of Jesus Christ. Given that faith in our minds, what should be our response with our wills?
I suggest that we distinguish two levels of our response to the mercy of God. On the first level is the depth of love that we owe to God for his merciful love of us. Remember, mercy is love shown to the unlovable. And any of us with a shred of honesty in our hearts must admit we have been too many times very unloving towards God. Yet he has not ceased loving us. What then is our first responsibility? The debt, the debitum amoris, as the Church says, the debt of love that we owe to God for his unbounded mercy to us.
The second level is the mercy we should show to others in order to pay this debt of love that we owe to God. What is the currency, what is the mazuma with which we are to repay the debt of love that we owe to God? The currency with which we are to repay our debt of love for God for his merciful love to us is the mercy we show to the people whom God puts into our lives in order that we might repay our debt; and the debt is high. Let me go back over each of these two levels of response.
First our debt of love to God for his loving mercy to us. One reason why God allowed us to sin is that we might love him more than we would have had we not sinned. This is good bonafide Catholic doctrine. What is this more? Every rational creature must love God. But a sinful rational creature must love God more than it would have loved him, or as we may say, would have had to love him had that rational creature not sinned. What is this more? I have ten ways on this first level of repaying our debt of love to God.
What is this more? By loving him more generously than we would have had we not sinned; by loving him more constantly than we would have loved had we not sinned; by loving him more wholeheartedly than we would have had we not sinned; by loving him more earnestly, more seriously; by loving him more willingly.
What a difference between two people or among two thousand people doing the same job! This is a rather good definition of work: work is that which man would rather not be doing if he could be doing something else. Loving God more willingly; loving God more voluntarily. We can love God, and no doubt we are sincere; but this love can go deeper and deeper and deeper into that one faculty with which when we are loving perfectly, we are loving with the will. There have been times in my life and I am sure there have been in yours, that the only love that I had for God was sheer, naked, cold will-power; when every feeling in my body, every emotion in my soul was against doing what I thought God wanted me to do when I told him: "Lord, you know I am doing this only because I love you. And I hate it! Do you hear me?" He says, "Stop shouting. I hear you."
To love God more than we would have had we not sinned means to love him more freely. After awhile in the spiritual life in the service of God, we get into a routine: things become habitual. The Missionaries of Charity tell me that when they first entered the convent, getting up at 4:40 in the morning was hard, but afterwards they got into the habit. Loving God freely means we use our free will in choosing to love God. In fact in my vocabulary I distinguish between choosing and loving.
There are three functions to the human will. The human will is the power we have to desire. Not everything we desire should we choose. Agreed? That is the second function of the human will: to choose. But the third role of the human will beyond desire and beyond choosing is loving, which I define as a sustained choice. When I love someone I keep choosing that one. I've talked to many married couples even three weeks after they married, with a perfectly somber, sane choice when they married. "To keep choosing him! Lord," she says, "whatever possessed me to say 'I do?'
So to love God more means to love him more freely by constantly choosing. And leave it to God to make sure that our love for him is free, in no way coerced or merely habitual, to keep us awake in our loving him, to make free choices in our love.
We love God more by loving him more sacrificingly, by giving up. This is one of the frequent methods that God has for getting more love out of us. He puts all kinds of wonderful creatures into our lives. After awhile we catch on: we learn the divine strategy. Some people seem never to learn it. God puts wonderful persons, places and things into their lives. Leave it to God! "You didn't know this when I gave it to you, did you? Well, now give it back to me." "But, Lord, you gave it to me." "I said give it back to me." Loving God more sacrificingly, where sacrifice is the surrender of something we love to God whom we love more.
To love God more means to love him more joyfully. There is such a thing as a kind of loving as I found out in counseling so many married people. "Father, I'm sure he loves me; but he is such a strange unrevealing character that I have to make an act of faith when I believe that he loves me." Loving God more joyfully. By the way these ten qualities of loving God more go together. One reason that some people who may love God indeed but not love him joyfully is because they are not really loving him willingly. (Loving God more joyfully means down deep interior satisfaction we experience when we love God. God wants us to have it.)
If we love God we are even to love God more cheerfully, so that everyone who enters our life will say: "I can see that person loves God. It is evident. He or she is so cheerful; they must enjoy what they are doing for God." And the more they know us they will say: "I do not understand it, because I know how much their love for God costs them." In other words we are to smile when we pay back to God the heavy debt we owe him in our love.
The second level of our response. We said that having sinned, our response to God should be in loving him more. Our response to God should be by showing mercy to everyone whom God puts into our lives, in order that by showing mercy to them we might begin to begin to repay the heavy debt that we owe to God.
Christ went out of his way in his preaching in the parables he gave, in his reprimand, and above all by his example, to teach us to be merciful to those who have no claim on our love, who do not deserve to be loved by us. The evangelist St. Luke, as the disciple of St. Paul, brings out both aspects of our responsibility: mercy towards God - strange expression - by loving God more than we would have had we not sinned; mercy towards others by loving those who do not deserve to be loved.
How do we know that Christ practically built the whole temple of Christianity on this foundation, the foundation of mercy? Christ enshrined it in the middle of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the merciful." And he put it in the middle of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our offenses as we forgive those who offend us." People do offend us. God wants people to enter our lives who humanly speaking, will not deserve our love. Why? In order to give us the blessed painful opportunity of practicing mercy. Our mercy to people merits the grace we need to be forgiven and what is most important, merits grace for the ones toward whom we are practicing mercy.
"Lord Jesus Christ, you are our merciful God become Man to redeem us from our sins. Open our eyes to the debt of love that we owe you for your unspeakable merciful love for us. Open our hearts to give ourselves to you through those whom you place into our lives, so that by our mercy toward them we may win mercy from you and, dear Jesus, cooperate with you in the redemption of a sinful world. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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