Who needs mercy, when nothing is a sin?
The love of God … precedes, anticipates and saves. Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures. But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.
—Pope Francis, Homily for the Opening of the Year of Mercy
The Year of Mercy has been an occasion for many to rightfully mourn the fact that we live in a world where the concept of sin is considered by some to be outdated and meaningless.
Mercy is dependent on justice and the concept of sin because when God shows us mercy, it is so he can forgive our sins.
So what meaning does mercy have in a world that does not believe in sin?
I used to not believe in sin. I was an atheist who had a moment of instantaneous conversion back to belief in God. However, my journey back to the Church was not so immediate. It was a slow and gradual process. It was a process in which God and other Christians showed me love, patience and acceptance as I stumbled along. Finally, I began to intellectually assent to the teaching authority of the Church, including sin as defined by the Church.
But in the early months of my conversion, my repentance and my sins were not God’s focus. The focus was how much God loved me. I’ll never forget the feeling of those first months. I walked around as if cradled in the hand of the Creator, simply basking in his loving gaze.
And I continued sinning. Seriously.
But I now knew a God who loved me. And his merciful love anticipated my repentance. He did not draw back in disgust at seeing my lack of repentance. He did not smite me as I stood for continuing in my former way of life. He entered my soul and embraced me precisely where it was darkest. In the areas where I was dead, Jesus died with me.
Eventually, through my relationship with God, I felt an invitation to return to the Church. I was baffled and disgusted. I loved God, but I was not interested in returning to the Church. I wanted to love God on my own terms. But I knew God would only lead me to a place where he could love me more fully.
So, in obedience to the God I loved, I began to attend Mass more regularly.
One day I will never forget, I was getting ready for work and felt a sudden illumination of my conscience. It was as if I could finally see all my sins as God sees them, all I had done, all I was doing and all I would continue to do as a sinful human being. I collapsed, sobbing on the floor.
This was a moment of mercy.
But God’s mercy did not begin in that moment. God began showing me mercy much earlier on; his mercy anticipated my repentance. It was the anticipatory, noncontingent nature of this mercy that led me to repent. God loved me in the midst of my darkness because he knew that it was only his blazing love that could save me.
This is how God loves us. He extends his mercy to us throughout our lives, up until the last breath we take. His mercy anticipates our cooperation. His mercy anticipates our repentance. His mercy anticipates our return to him.
God is outside of time so his mercy on human beings with free will is not contingent on what we do. He pours it out on us always because it is part of his nature to be merciful.
Every day. Every hour. Every minute.
If our hearts are unrepentant, we cannot receive the fullness of God’s salvific graces, but that does not mean his merciful love goes to waste. Rather, if we are even slightly cooperative, it can slowly soften our hearts and help us see truth.
God bears with our sins in order that we may repent: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance” (Wisdom 11: 23).
What does this reality mean in this Year of Mercy?
It means we are called to show others God’s mercy in this same way. We are called to show others a mercy that does not begin with pointing out another person’s sin. (This is particularly true if another person does not even believe in the concept of sin.)
Mercy begins with the person, where he or she is, and leads that person back to God. Mercy puts the other person’s spiritual well-being first and creates space for the gradual nature of conversion. Mercy respects that slamming the Ten Commandments or the Catechism in someone’s face is often going to be useless if the other person does not first accept God’s love, or the basic fact of his existence.
Mercy anticipates judgment and pointing out sin with love.
A merciful anticipatory love does not dismiss sin as unimportant. Mercy does not skip over sin and pretend that all is well.
As St. Augustine wrote: “His mercy anticipates us. He anticipates us, however, that we may be healed.”
But mercy does not prioritize sin.
Mercy prioritizes God’s healing love, so that we may come to understand our sin, repent of it and be healed.
Thomas Aquinas refers to God’s mercy as that which “dispels misery.” We are called to accompany others on this journey in which God wants to dispel misery. It is a journey that sometimes requires our patience as we walk with others who do not even recognize their sin as misery.
But this is the same journey we walk with our patient, merciful God who surrounds us with his mercy now, before we are perfect, so that we can be perfected in his merciful love.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth.