When Mercy and Justice Kiss


Detail from W. Blake’s The Woman Taken in Adultery

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways, the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered … it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” ~G.K. Chesterton 

This is one of my favorite passages written by G.K. Chesterton (from his masterpiece Orthodoxy). He is referring to the secular Western world: a society without a unified system of moral thought like Christianity. I think it applies to those of us within Christendom, too, because it speaks to a sinful tendency buried deep within us all as a consequence of the Fall.

As Christians, we often struggle to strike the right balance between truth and pity (or compassion) in our communications and relationships, whether it be on the broad scale or with individuals. We’ve all used righteousness to crush the life out of someone in a way that would make even a Pharisee blush. We’ve all erred on the side of a kind of pity that denied and distorted reality to the detriment of those that needed to hear the truth and be set free.

Why do we do this? I think at least part of the problem lies in the fact that we are focused on ourselves in each of these situations. Selfish ambition or vain conceit have caused us to consider ourselves more than others.

After all, there is a difference between being tough with someone because it’s genuinely called for in the situation and being tough because our pride has been hurt or we are afraid of looking weak. This latter reaction is especially possible given that we live in a tolerance-obsessed culture; often times we are driven by a fear of being seen as caving to its irrational demands. Sometimes, being hard-hitting with the truth fits better with a persona we are trying to project than the situation we are attempting to address.

The converse is possible, too. There is a difference between being gracious with someone because we are called to be gentle with the broken-hearted and displaying pity because we are afraid of looking a certain way in the eyes of others and/or we are scared of rejection. If I am honest, I tend towards this latter extreme.

These unhealthy applications of pity or truth are what we tend towards in our sinfulness. In both cases, we have lost sight of the person in front of us and what they need. We all have to ask ourselves this question before we act: “Is this what the situation genuinely calls for or am I thinking more of myself here?” After all, we cannot trust ourselves. Not a whit!

If I decide to be more tough than gentle, I want it to be because it is what’s truly needed in the situation, regardless of my own needs. The same goes if I choose the path of gentleness. And it will never be a one-size-fits-all when it comes to what people need. That’s why we have to approach this with tremendous fear and trembling and mountains of prayer. We are not dealing with mere mortals here, after all.

And even when we do our best to check our lesser motives at the door, we can still be wrong. Truth and Pity are two unwieldy giants for finite creatures like us to balance. It’s quite humbling, in fact.

In the end, is it possible to make truth and pity, justice and mercy, righteousness and peace kiss?

Chesterton writes,

“Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact, everyone did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe— that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.

Christianity alone balances this awful need for Goodness to be upheld with Justice and Truth, and Love displayed with Pity and Grace. And it balances these seemingly opposing forces without diminishing any of them in the least. It is something Chesterton called the romance of true Orthodoxy. This should come as no surprise, too, for at the center of the Faith is the Cross, the ultimate display of absolute Justice and absolute Mercy. The Cross is a collision and a contradiction, as Chesterton observed.

Our Lord was both merciful and severe during His sojourn on Earth. He spoke of Hell more than any of the New Testament writers, including the fiery Paul, making that Apostle look positively mild in comparison. In his other masterpiece, The Everlasting Man, Chesterton wrote, “the image of Christ in the churches … is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heartbreaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters.”

We must rely on Jesus to lead us in this crucial act of balancing pity and truth in a way that diminishes neither but speaks best to the unique situations in which we find ourselves.

Oh, give us ears to hear and the courage to be genuinely humble when we fail!

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” ~C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”


William Blake, “Jesus Anointed by the Sinful Woman”


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