Whenever I seek out spiritual advice, whether from a priest or a saint or a theologian or a friend, I find myself asking these two questions:
Is he orthodox?
Is he gentle?
Because if I’m going to open my soul to somebody, I need to know that they take seriously all its dimensions. I need to know that they believe in the horror of my sins but also in the tenderness of my heart. I need to know that this person will treat me with both mercy and justice.
Unfortunately, this seems to be quite difficult to find and not surprisingly— after all, the idea that mercy and justice are at odds with each other is so common that it has become a cliche. People think “Christian orthodoxy,” and they think “nuns whipping little children.” People think “gentleness,” and they think “anything-goes relativist.”
We seem to fear that a firm belief in morality cannot coexist with a firm belief in love. Did we miss the fact that the simple St. Francis, who called the birds his sisters, was the same St. Francis who flung himself into a thorny bush in response to a lustful thought? Or perhaps we missed the entire New Testament.
Christianity insists that the opposition of justice and mercy is a thing of the past. It is part of an old world, a world that didn’t yet know Jesus Christ. We need to catch up with the times, so to speak.
We need to be people who can believe that there is a hell but hope adamantly that no one is there. We need to be people who believe deeply in the graveness of sin but even more deeply in the power of love. We need to treat sins as serious wounds that must be addressed but understand that the causes of sin are painfully complex and need tenderness just as much as they need strong medicine.
Too often I have seen people turn away because they experienced either an absence of justice or mercy. I have watched friends reject Christianity because either the orthodoxy feels heartless or the heartfelt feels heretical— both situations turn people away.
People deserve a better experience of our faith than that. They deserve to see the unity of justice and mercy in Christ.
Because it is the cultural norm to keep justice and mercy separate, we must be proactive in seeking their unity in the love of God. We must keep reevaluating how our own scale is tipping and act accordingly. We have to be deliberate in keeping justice and mercy wed because, for whatever reason, the world is determined to separate them.
I often wonder how many fallen-away Christians might have stayed if only, depending on the circumstances, for a little more justice or a little more mercy. The Christian God knows the seriousness of our sins so well that he allows himself to die in atonement for them, challenging us to stand boldly for that truth, while gently forgiving all of our sins the moment we repent.
That’s the God we need to be showing people — the God of the Ten Commandments and the God of the 23rd Psalm— the God of the cross and the manger. That is the God who brings people home.