A friend wrote me and asked me to respond to a question about mercy being considered a “cheap” way out of sin, as being forgiven seems just too quick and easy. Here was my email back:
Mercy, like grace (xáris), is an undeserved favor. As you say, creation itself is an act of pure mercy: a pure, gratuitous gift of existence given by I AM. And mercy, which is an aspect of love, always places that undeserved favor in service to the being and well-being of the other. Love means willing the good of another, and mercy (which is love encountering evil and overcoming it) means willing the good of one crippled by evil (whether self-inflicted or other-inflicted).
Mercy is always free, but, once accepted, is never cheap, since one who receives it accepts with it the inner dynamism and telos [goal] of mercy: to radically eradicate evil, radically here meaning that which is related to the radix, “root,” since mercy uproots evil. Mercy is always costly when it is permitted to be what it is and achieve its end, since the eradication of evil demands total conversion from evil…which is always costly to the sinner. St. John of the Cross describes the excruciating process of purgation that God puts us through as He gives us His mercy in order to eradicate sin and its distorting effects within us and make us capable of receiving and giving divine selfless love.
And, as Jesus reveals fully on the cross, mercy is also always costly to the giver of mercy. God creates a world out of nothing and gives it, in man, a freedom to receive the gift offered…or not. That was a costly risk God took, and on the cross he owned the risk and the cost…for the good of the other, i.e., humanity. Chesterton said: “Unless we affirm that God takes genuine risks, we will not be able to acknowledge that the world is a war zone while also holding that this war is not God’s will.”
In regard to sin, mercy is remissive not permissive (meaning: remission of sins not permission to sin). It pardons evils in order to remove them, get them out of the way (Psalm 51:1’s māhāh, “wipe away” sins), so that the communion of love, broken by sin, may be restored and estranged parties might be reconciled. Mercy never overlooks evil, but rather mercy heals, overcomes evil by restoring one harmed by evil to their originally God-intended goodness. Or to use an image dear to St. Gregory Nazianzus, sin covers the divine image over with muck and filth and mercy washes it clean so that it might shine in us again with all its brilliance in the life of virtue.
Read more at Word on Fire.