Justice and Mercy

Truly, the Lord is waiting to be gracious to you,
truly, he shall rise to show you mercy;
For the Lord is a God of justice:
happy are all who wait for him!

Isaiah 30:18

The world demands justice; that’s all it can demand. But God is a God of mercy, and He expects mercy from us. Justice and mercy… How can we fulfill two such apparently opposite guidelines?

Justice and Mercy

We know justice and mercy are compatible; they both exist in God perfectly. To understand that at all, we’d probably have to read the entire Summa Theologiae. (Happy Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas!) Since we don’t have a Summa, I’ll focus this little blog post on how we might observe the two in our own lives.


Justice in this sense is giving to each what they deserve. This can be seen very simply. Traffic laws, for example, are just. They are created and enforced because human beings deserve to travel safely. Each person should have enough room to maneuver and time to safely make a turn.

Of course, it is difficult to follow the rules all the time. I might think the speed limit is good for most people most of the time, but not for me right now. Whether I am awake enough to drive is a judgment call that might require more sleep. Even in the best circumstances, too many things may demand our attention at once; a deer may leap into the road in front of me, forcing me into the wrong lane.


Mercy in this sense is giving someone more kindness than they deserve. This certainly seems opposed to justice. In the example above, mercy would come from other drivers on the road. It may mean keeping our cool when a tailgater is behind us. It may mean stopping short when someone takes our turn at a stop sign. It may mean swerving into the shoulder of the road when someone takes our road space.

All these things are clearly the other driver’s fault. You have a right to something, and another person is stealing it. If a crash occurs, it would be their fault. But is justice worth that crash? Is it even worth the risk?

Exercising mercy is difficult. It is dying to our sense of justice, swallowing our pride in what we deserve. Mercy is the most powerful answer to every injustice.

Justice and Mercy

In some sense, then, mercy is a necessary part of justice. In the case of someone blowing a stop sign, is it just that one injustice should ruin two cars? Is it not more just to save what good we can?

This takes us to what St. Therese of Lisieux says of God’s justice:

What a sweet joy it is to think that God is Just, i.e., that He takes into account our weakness, that He is perfectly aware of our fragile nature. What should I fear then?

Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

In the same way, if we are to act with such depth of justice, we must be mercifully aware of each person’s fragile nature. Though we like to think of ourselves as more, every human being is a child. We must all make allowances for hurts and injustices; how can any of us expect perfection?

We must try to imitate God’s goodness to us:

How gracious is the Lord, and just;
our God has compassion.
The Lord protects the simple hearts;
I was helpless so He saved me.

Psalm 116:5-6

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