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Mercy Is Free, But Never Cheap

February 15, 2018


A friend wrote me and asked me to respond to a question about mercy being considered a “cheap” way out of sin, as being forgiven seems just too quick and easy. Here was my email back:

Mercy, like grace (xáris), is an undeserved favor. As you say, creation itself is an act of pure mercy: a pure, gratuitous gift of existence given by I AM. And mercy, which is an aspect of love, always places that undeserved favor in service to the being and well-being of the other. Love means willing the good of another, and mercy (which is love encountering evil and overcoming it) means willing the good of one crippled by evil (whether self-inflicted or other-inflicted).

Mercy is always free, but, once accepted, is never cheap, since one who receives it accepts with it the inner dynamism and telos [goal] of mercy: to radically eradicate evil, radically here meaning that which is related to the radix, “root,” since mercy uproots evil. Mercy is always costly when it is permitted to be what it is and achieve its end, since the eradication of evil demands total conversion from evil…which is always costly to the sinner. St. John of the Cross describes the excruciating process of purgation that God puts us through as He gives us His mercy in order to eradicate sin and its distorting effects within us and make us capable of receiving and giving divine selfless love.

And, as Jesus reveals fully on the cross, mercy is also always costly to the giver of mercy. God creates a world out of nothing and gives it, in man, a freedom to receive the gift offered…or not. That was a costly risk God took, and on the cross he owned the risk and the cost…for the good of the other, i.e., humanity. Chesterton said: “Unless we affirm that God takes genuine risks, we will not be able to acknowledge that the world is a war zone while also holding that this war is not God’s will.”

In regard to sin, mercy is remissive not permissive (meaning: remission of sins not permission to sin). It pardons evils in order to remove them, get them out of the way (Psalm 51:1’s māhāh, “wipe away” sins), so that the communion of love, broken by sin, may be restored and estranged parties might be reconciled. Mercy never overlooks evil, but rather mercy heals, overcomes evil by restoring one harmed by evil to their originally God-intended goodness. Or to use an image dear to St. Gregory Nazianzus, sin covers the divine image over with muck and filth and mercy washes it clean so that it might shine in us again with all its brilliance in the life of virtue.

Lastly, there is another cost to mercy: one who receives it must also in turn give it. (Think for example of Matthew 18:21-35.) In the Kingdom, you can’t give what you don’t have, but you also can’t have what you don’t give. St. Gregory again says, mercy shows itself having restored God’s image in us when we cheerfully practice almsgiving to the ungrateful, undeserving poor or joyfully do good to our nasty neighbor. Then we look just like God who showers His gifts on the undeserving. (Matthew 5:45 makes this point in the midst of the hardest words of the Sermon on the Mount.) Cool side fact: “almsgiving” comes from the Latin alemosyna, which comes from the Greek eleemosyne, which stems from the Greek root noun, eleos, which we translate in Scripture as mercy. Kyrie eleison. So almsgiving is mercy-giving, returning to God by way of the poor and undeserving and ungrateful the same mercy we received (Matthew 5:7; 10:8).

Then there’s forgiving mercy. The Our Father contains that stunning conditional clause that should make the “forgiven” tremble, tremble, tremble: “Forgive us our trespasses hōs kai [also as] we forgive those who trespass against us.” Just in case you missed that shocking development in Jewish forms of prayer (where else can you find this, except by in Jonah?), Jesus ends the Our Father with these words:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Nothing cheap there. And there are many other examples of this in the New Testament.

Free, yes; cheap, never. At least not if it’s the full Gospel you are talking about.