“We must be certain that just as God is merciful – and there is no limit to His mercy – He is also just, and there is no limit to His justice. Just as He is compassionate and forgives, He is also holy and hates sin.”
I’m continuing my discussion of A LIFE OF REPENTANCE AND PURITY by the late Pope Shenouda III and today I’m talking about Part 2, Chapter 4: If You Knew the Punishment for Sin, You Will Be Afraid.
How’s that for an uplifting and encouraging title?
The chapter talks about how we often take advantage of God’s mercy because we talk about it and view it in isolation – apart from God’s justice. We treat God like an ice cream cone where you can pick and choose which flavors you want and ignore the ones you don’t.
Uh…yeah…I’ll have two scoops of God’s mercy today and one scoop of His goodness. And can you throw a little extra compassion on top of that. But no justice and no truth and no wrath – those give me a rash.
NOTE: That analogy was mine, not the Pope’s - but I’ll bet you guessed that didn’t you?
God is not a “choose your own flavor” ice cream store; HE’S A PERSON! And as a Person, we have to understand all the aspects of His personality in order to relate to Him properly. That includes infinite MERCY, but also infinite JUSTICE.
And in fact, the two cannot be separated from one another; all of His attributes are part of Him as a Person. So God is just in His mercy and merciful in His justice. He is One Person and therefore we must see the full picture in order to relate to Him properly.
What that means for me and you is this: REPENTANCE IS ABOUT RESTORING A RELATIONSHIP, NOT ABOUT KEEPING A LAW.
This point was really eye-opening for me. So often we think of repentance as if we’re dealing with a judge or police officer.
“Ok God, I know I did this bad thing but you forgave the Samaritan woman so You have to forgive me too. I’ll give you two weeks of fasting and then You have to let me go.”
“I know I did this bad thing God, but it’s written in Your book (the Bible) that You are full of mercy and compassion and grace so therefore You have to forgive me.”
“I know I have sinned, but we’re all sinners and God promised to forgive us so relax and take it easy.”
Do you see the problem with this? We focus on God’s infinite mercy (which is 100% true and waiting for us) but we ignore God’s infinite justice (which is equally 100% true and waiting for us as well).
We remind God of all the people that He has forgiven in the past – adulterers and murderers and all kinds of bad people – without reminding ourselves that the key to their forgiveness was:
"the amazingly deep repentance these saints went through, by which God accepted them. This repentance was a turning point in their lives. They never again returned to sin… God’s mercy to them was an opportunity neither for carelessness nor continuing in sin, God forbid.” (page 83)
We need to remove the idea of sin as an impersonal “breaking of a law.” When we view sin in this way, we demand forgiveness and mercy – thinking to ourselves “I’ll do my time and God will forgive me.”
Instead we need to view sin as a very personal “breaking of a relationship.” And when a relationship is broken, it must be repaired. That repair cannot be demanded or insisted upon according to our own wishes. WE are the ones who sinned and therefore we are no position to demand anything!
“I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” (Romans 9:15)
Does this mean that God may not forgive us when we repent? CERTAINLY NOT! That is not my point at all. My point however is that forgiveness is not our inherent right. We cannot demand it as if God is required by law to give it to us.
Instead we must focus on REPAIRING THE RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD through repentance. Why? Because God’s view of us is merely a reflection of our inner state.
“When you look at the face of God, you see your inner condition. If you have repented, you will see God in His goodness. But if you are reckless, you will see God in His severity.” (page 84)
If you’re a parent, you get this. All parents know what it’s like to have a child “say sorry” without really repenting. It drives us crazy! That child is saying sorry because he believes that merely uttering the words requires you as the parent to forgive him and remove all his consequences.
But is that true? Are you required to forgive? Are you required to accept his “sorry” regardless of how he says it? Or is it only out of your goodness and compassion that you will forgive once you have seen that the child is truly repentant and ready to change his ways?
The book gives a beautiful/scary analogy about the seriousness of God’s justice. It says
“Since God is just, He was incarnate and died for us to pay the price of our sin. Justice must be fulfilled, even if the matter reaches the stage where God takes on flesh, and becomes a man, taking the appearance of a slave, and is insulted, crucified, tortured and killed. If God’s justice is like this, how can we escape it?” (page 84)
You cannot believe in God’s infinite mercy without also believing in His infinite justice as well.