God’s Love: Perfect Justice Combined with Perfect Mercy

Love, suffering, and death have a uniquely interrelated relationship. To understand love, one must know sacrifice and therefore be acquainted with suffering. Jesus modeled this relationship by sacrificing Himself on the Cross for us. We all experience this in our human relationships as well. For example, spouses sacrifice for the good of one another, parents willingly lose sleep to care for their children, and our best friends will drop whatever they are doing to pick us up from the airport. This is meaningful love: the love of sacrifice.   

To search for love is to search for God and in some sense for perfection as well. God made man in His own image so that man could become like Him, to become unified with Him, and to share in His eternal joy. He established the universe for man’s benefit, giving us the power to share in the carrying out of His plan (CCC, 1992, para. 299, 306). God entrusted us with the responsibility of “subduing the earth and having domininon over it” while experiencing both good and evil, so that we could discern whether we want to live the Christian life, striving for God’s kingdom, or to live sinfully without repentance, resulting in permanent separation from Him (CCC, para. 307).

Furthermore, through His mercy, God meets each man “where he is,” and directs him through his laws to live according to His will. To ponder how God brings good even out of evil, we can consider how He makes His laws fully apparent through the painful consequences of our evil actions—even to those who do not have access to written versions of the law. When we rebel against the good that God has planned for us, or when we misuse it, we encounter suffering. In a way, suffering can be an arbiter of God’s will.

As I explained in Why All People Suffer (Sophia Press, 1991), there are four tasks of suffering that lead us from sin to salvation: (1) to teach us proper self-love by creating feedback loops which make vice uncomfortable and lead us to virtue; (2) to reorient the soul to God; (3) to unleash our love of neighbor; and (4) to redeem the sufferer who is willing to suffer for the good of another. In this way, God paradoxically uses suffering to intensify our ability to love and to bring us to eternal life. Once we realize this, we will realize that God loves us and that suffering is not a curse but a compass to help us find our way back to God.

Love is a theological virtue infused in us by God. Love is a capability that is built up by use and lost through disuse, like any other human capability. It is not a commodity that is depleted by use. Virtuous habits increase our love, and all sin is a failing to love. Yet God gives us the gift of sacramental confession as the means of restoring the fullness of love achieved by sacramental union with God, which is the supreme example of God’s balance of justice and mercy.  

God’s balance of justice and mercy is critical for the motivation of growth and spiritual evolution in man. Many people have a hard time comprehending how God can be perfectly just and perfectly merciful at the same time. They incorrectly view perfect mercy in God as total permissiveness, and perfect justice as holding all sins against us indefinitely. However, consider how forgiveness by God without repentance on our part does not hold as much power; we would be far less likely to change our ways, and it would, in a way, propagate error. Similarly, if our sins were held against us perpetually, even after we repented, the motivation to repent and amend our ways would also be diminished. God is perfectly merciful by forgiving us when we reconcile with Him sacramentally, and He is totally just by holding us accountable for unconfessed sins. This combination of mercy and justice, administered by the Church through the Sacrament of Reconcilation, exhibits God’s powerful love for us and gives us the motivation to grow in His divine love, neither condoning sin nor condemning us for past mistakes.

Death also leads and motivates us to love divinely. If life didn’t end, it would not give us the opportunity to be with God in heaven, and if we weren’t judged by a just and merciful God, then our motivation to sacrifice for the good of others would decrease. Man is motivated to improve himself morally by the end goal of reaching heaven. The first step in achieving this goal is to die in the state of grace, with no mortal sins. A mortal sin is the lack of love, either by failing to come to the aid of others or by seeking to exploit them for our benefit. To learn to love is learn to live as God intended.

Matthew’s Gospel includes three complementary definitions of the way to Heaven, each involving loving God and neighbor. In Matthew 5, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes, the virtuous attributes required for harmony and happiness. In Matthew 19, the rich young man asks Jesus how to gain eternal life. He tells him first to follow the 10 Commandments, then to give his worldly goods to others out of love for God. Finally, In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us the parable of the Final Judgment where he teaches that the deciding factor in our judgment whether we cared for the least of our brothers. If we follow these ways to love in our lives and reconcile with God sacramentally when we fail, we will build up love, heaven’s currency.

In the word’s of St. Paul, love never fails. Love is a capability that cannot be stolen, and it is the only thing you take with you when you die. Everything else will be lost at the moment of death, so all worldly possessions, all the wealth, power, and fame accumulated should be used charitably on your neighbors, building up heavenly currency before you die and it becomes worthless to you. But love also requires self-sacrifice and that is not achieved by leaving money to charities to enhance your legacy among the living. It must be done for the love of God, while you still live, to have spiritual merit. God loves us perfectly, mercifully giving us an infinite number of chances to reconcile with Him and our neighbors, but He is also perfectly just, so love remains a self-sacrificial act of the will. To join God in eternal life, we must choose to give of ourselves for the love of God.

Author’s Note: Heaven’s Currency: A Study of Love continues this discussion on love. It is the final book of my trilogy about life’s great mysteries. It is a direct outgrowth and the culmination of my previous two books—Why All People Suffer and Dying Without Fear. I couldn’t have written it if I had not written the other books first because it allowed me to understand just how interrelated love is with suffering and death. To love divinely is to sacrifice for the good of the beloved.

Photo: Mignard, P. (1664). God the Father. [oil on canvas]. Retrieved from National Gallery of Art: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.69367.html.

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Paul Chaloux was born in Maine in 1960 to Paul and Dolly Chaloux, the oldest of 6 children. He grew up in Northern Virginia and attended public schools. After graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1982, Paul worked for over 30 years as an engineer, manager, and strategist for IBM in upstate New York. While there, he also served as a catechist for 15 years at St. Columba Parish in Hopewell Junction, NY. In 2015, after earning a Master’s in Religious Education from Fordham University and retiring from IBM, Paul was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the Catholic University of America to study Catechetics, with the goal of teaching future catechists. However, his plans changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease just after moving to Washington, DC for his studies. His new neurologist, after learning that Paul was studying theology, asked him why people suffer. He had no answer since it was not his intended field of study, but the question intrigued him enough to cause him to take up the subject. Five years later, having earned his Ph.D. in Moral Theology, Dr. Chaloux wrote Why All People Suffer for general audiences as a follow on to his dissertation, The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude, which he defended at CUA on March 5, 2020. Dr. Chaloux currently teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and serves as a catechist at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Virginia. He has been married for over thirty years to his wife Sue, and they have 4 adult children and 3 granddaughters.

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