Mercy: Love’s Second Name
During our last FOSJ session we discussed the single key attribute of a great father: mercy. If we could simmer down all of God the Father’s attributes into one characteristic it would be mercy. A father who is merciful is one who has a compassionate heart that is willing to pay the price for another in order to liberate another from his sins, failures, and miseries. Pope John Paul II said that mercy is Love’s second name. God is Love and Love expresses itself in mercy. The Sacred Scripture testifies to this truth: “God did not send His Son to judge us but rather to save us” (see John 3:17). God asks, “Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked or rather am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:25). St. Paul asks, “He Who has not spared even His own Son, but has delivered Him for us all, how can He fail to grant us all things with Him? (Rom. 8:32). Our Lord Jesus, as the ambassador of the Father, proclaims with divine certainty that “whoever comes to Me I will never reject” (John 6:32). God is Love and Love expresses itself by mercy.
Two Conditions of Mercy
Mercy has only two conditions: first, that we receive it; and second, that we give it. Our Lord told St. Faustina, the apostle of mercy, “Tell all people, My daughter, that I am Love and Mercy itself.” And again, “before I come as a just Judge, I first open wide the door of My mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice…” (Diary of St. Faustina, 1146). This is not a threat, but rather a plea for each of us to receive God’s endless mercy. Second, we must give mercy. We fathers are to “be merciful just as our Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). For “blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matt. 5: 7). In other words, by giving mercy, we receive mercy, receiving mercy, we become more capable of giving mercy. Why does this matter? Recall that the human father is a link between heaven and Earth, he is the face of the Father that his children cannot see. If our children are to believe in God’s mercy, it is imperative that they see us being merciful. If our children do not receive mercy from their human fathers, they most likely will not believe in the mercy of God the Father. If a child trusts that his father is merciful, the child will most likely trust that his Father in heaven is merciful. Our fatherhood and the manner in which we live our vocation has tremendous impact upon our children.
There’s a story of a man who having been happily married for forty-five years explained to his psychologist that he was becoming concerned about his marriage, for of late, his wife was not responding to his questions and was appearing to ignore him. The psychologist suggested that his patient’s wife may be losing her hearing and that he should try an experiment to determine if this was the reason for her lack of response. He proposed that on the next occasion when his wife had her back turned to him, that he ask her a question at an approximate distance of fifteen feet. If she does not respond, the psychologist advised, he should shorten the distance to ten feet and ask again. If he does not receive a response, he was to shorten the distance to five feet, and then one foot, accordingly. When the man arrived home, his wife was cooking in the kitchen with her back to him. He stood approximately fifteen feet behind her and said, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” There was no response. He shortened the distance to ten feet and asked again—still no response. He shortened the distance to five feet and asked again, only to receive no response. Finally, he stood directly behind her and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” His wife responded, “For the fourth time, we are having meatloaf!” It is easy to think that the problem is with the other person—especially our children; but often, our children’s behaviors that we most dislike are behaviors of our own. If we desire our children to be merciful, we must be rich in mercy.
What Mercy Is and What It Isn’t
So how do we fathers apply mercy? In the context of mercy, our fallen nature tends to cause us to err in one of two ways: first, we apply justice without mercy, which is characterized by overprotecting, controlling, and dominating the child; or second, we apply mercy without justice, which is characterized by neglecting or indulging the child.
Overprotection or domination is expressed by implementing strict, rigid laws to control the child, ruling with laws rather than with love, thus, instilling in the child a disordered fear of God rather than a sincere love for God, which will result in the child’s eventual rebellion. A prime example of this dynamic is Martin Luther. Martin’s parents dominated and controlled him, and, at times, physically abused him. Martin grew up having a disordered, unhealthy fear of God. On one occasion, while Martin was returning home from university, he was suddenly overcome by a storm in which lightning was striking round about him. In a moment of terror and panic, Martin prayed to St. Anne, vowing that if he survived the storm he would consecrate his life to God by becoming a monk. And so he did.
During the offering of his first Holy Mass, Martin became terrified, believing that the God’s wrath would fall upon him, causing the ground to open beneath him and swallow him. During the reception dinner following the Mass, Martin addressed his father, saying, “Father, can you now see that I am doing good?” His father responded, “Did you not learn the fourth commandment? Honor thy father and thy mother? I desired that you would become a lawyer and care for your parents, but you became a priest.” Not receiving mercy from his earthly father, Martin believed God the Father to be unmerciful. This distrust for God’s mercy inflicted Martin with an extreme scrupulosity, a guilt-ridden psychosis, that induced him to go to confession two, sometimes three times a day—never truly believing that he was forgiven. Martin’s psychosis led him to deny the Church’s authority and teachings. In the effort to somehow believe that God was merciful, he developed a theological premise called “slave will,” which taught that man is an ass that God rides as he wills, and when he decides to stop riding the ass, the devil rides the ass, and all the while the man has no choice in the matter. In other words, Luther believed that a man is not culpable for any of his sinful actions. The domination of Martin by his father induced him to rebellion, a rebellion that split the Church and may have caused the loss of countless souls. Fatherhood matters. Mercy matters.
On the other hand, neglecting a child is characterized by a father’s desire either to dismiss himself from his responsibility of fathering his child, or to become his child’s friend rather than his father. If he is motivated by the desire to be liked by his child, the human father offers little guidance and enforces few rules, as he is fearful of dominating his child. This fear causes him to spoil the child and eventually encourages the child to dominate his father. My wife and I, who have a daughter with cerebral palsy, attended a weekend-long event offered for the purpose of counseling parents who have children with special needs. During the event, we noticed a couple who had a nine-year-old son who was confined to a wheelchair. When their son did not get what he desired, he would begin to scream, and scream louder until he finally obtained what he wanted. The couple coddled their boy, fearing that they would dominate their son, and consequently offered very little discipline, which empowered the child to dominate them. The result: the family imploded and the parents divorced.
Justice with Mercy—Mercy with Justice
The golden mean between these two disordered extremes is to integrate justice with mercy and mercy with justice. Justice without mercy is domination and mercy without justice is neglect. Years ago I was gazing upon a painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus and while meditating upon the scene a thought penetrated my soul: “Come close and see what thy sins have caused, but come closer and see the love by which they have been forgiven.” To comprehend the depth of God’s mercy we must comprehend the gravity, seriousness, and consequences of sin. Sin kills. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Our sins caused deicide—the murder of God. Only when we understand this truth can we fully appreciate the merciful love of the Father, which forgives us of our sins. Justice demands that sin be atoned for. God the Father applied his justice to his Son, while applying his mercy to us.
Finishing the Race
In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, British world-class sprinter Derek Redmond was favored to win the 440-meter event. Approximately midway though the race, his hamstring snapped, causing him to hobble and eventually tumble to the ground. When all appeared to be lost, Derek’s father suddenly barged past security and ran to his limping son; Derek leaned on him while the two of them walked the last 250 meters and crossed the finish line together. Decades of training, the expectations of a proud father, the aspirations for a gold medal—all lost in an instant. His son failed. Yet Derek’s father took his son’s failure upon himself and proved to the world that success is not winning the race of the world, but rather, winning is when a father and a child run the race of life and cross the finish line together. Love expresses itself through mercy. A merciful father does not abandon his child to his failures, but takes his child’s failures and burdens upon himself. From the moment that St. Joseph became betrothed to Mary, his life became very complicated. By bearing the burdens of Mary, Joseph experienced hardship, trials, and tests. Consider that he first embraced a life of celibacy, yet heroically dwelled with a beautiful Virgin, while never exposing her to shame. He took the suspicions and scandal of Mary’s pregnancy upon himself. He then saved his family from the murderous threat of Herod. He pressed on, living in Egypt, in a foreign land whose language he did not speak, while raising income to provide for his family. And just when life began to settle down, Jesus—at the age of twelve—turns up missing. Joseph refused to abandon Jesus and Mary, but rather expressed love by mercifully bearing their burdens as his own. God is Love and Love expresses itself in mercy. If we are to imitate God the Father, our love will express itself in mercy.