Driving in to work this morning, I was listening to a popular Christian radio station. I live in a small town, so the mainstream stuff is basically all I’ve got in the car.
I was listening to one of the more popular songs and I really started paying attention to the lyrics. I noticed that, in several of these songs, there was a common but concerning theme; an idea that not only propagates complacency and carelessness, but a blissful ignorance to the full truth about God, salvation, and faith.
Now, I realize that these mainstream Christian stations are predominately protestant or non-denominational. I also realize that they seek to appeal to the masses, truth or no truth. To be honest, I find them quite catchy and fun to listen to sometimes.
I also know, however, that some of these songs support straight-up lies. They are full of misconceptions, half-truths and ignorant ideologies that can, despite their warm and fuzzy feel, drag a person further from God rather than closer. I think there a lot of reasons why this is problematic, but there is one in particular I’m concerned with: These messages turn a blind eye the reality, severity and importance of God’s justice. Don’t believe me? Just look at these lyrics from Hawk Nelson’s song, “Live Like You’re Loved:"
“I'm telling you somethin'
this racing, this running
Oh, you're working way too hard!
And this perfection you're chasing
is just energy wasted
Cause he loves you like you are”
What is the message here? It’s only the second verse of the song, and it seems as though we’re being told that we shouldn’t be trying so hard to live well. On top of that, it says we should just sit back and enjoy being God’s creation. It implies that we have nothing to work toward, nothing to offer. That’s a problem. If you’re still not convinced, here’s another bit from their song:
“I'm telling you somethin'
This God we believe in
Yeah, he changed everything
No more guilt! No more shame!
He took all that away”
Wait… Hold on a second. Did they just say no more guilt? Wow. It must be nice not having to be responsible for our actions anymore. Just imagine if we didn’t have to feel guilt for anything anymore. Last time I checked, Christ didn’t take our “guilt” from us, he took away our sins by way of a contrite confession. The Catechism even says, “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused” (CCC 1459, my emphasis). Maybe Hawk Nelson is the exception to the rule, though.
“Rumor has it there's a gavel in my hand
I'm only here to condemn
But let me tell you secrets you would've never known
I think of you as my best friend”
Oops, maybe not. That was a piece from “More Than You Think I Am” by Danny Gokey, and did you hear his wonderful news? Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, isn’t here to do anything but be your best friend. In fact, it’s only a rumor that he’s got a gavel in his hand, but we don’t really think about that. That’s just a paperweight. Surely these songs are isolated incidents, though.
“Dear younger me
It’s not your fault
You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross
Dear younger me
You are holy
You are righteous
You are one of the redeemed
Set apart a brand new heart
You are free indeed”
Well, I don’t know what to tell you. This is part of the song, “Dear Younger Me,” by MercyMe, and it’s exactly what you might be thinking - letter to his past self. At first, It actually wasn’t too bad. But then this part came up, and there it was. The singer is self-righteous; confident of his salvation because of his simple belief in Christ. There’s no mention of penance, no mention of struggling to live a holy life… Actually, he’s holy already! He's free! You really can’t make this stuff up. This notion that all we need in order to live a holy, righteous life is a belief in Jesus Christ is simply untrue. It’s dangerous, misleading, and sort of frustrating to hear as a Catholic.
More often than not, these songs are overwhelmingly high-spirited. They emphasize the mercy of Our Father in Heaven, but it’s all they emphasize. They rarely, if ever, consider the justice of God. Why is this a problem for us? Well, St. Alphonsus Ligouri said it best:
“’But God is merciful.’ Behold another common delusion by which the devil encourages sinners to persevere in a life of sin! A certain author has said that more souls have been sent to hell by the mercy of God than by his justice. This is indeed the case; for men are induced by the deceits of the devil to persevere in sin, through confidence in God’s mercy; and thus they are lost.” (St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s Sermon for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, my emphasis added)
Boy…That seems like a harsh assessment, doesn’t it? I promise, it’s actually makes a lot of sense. Think about this for a moment: If I told somebody about the unfailing mercy of God, but failed to mention His equally unfailing justice, which would sound more desirable to them? If I told someone that God will have mercy on them no matter what they did, but I never mention that He’s a God of justice, I’m not so sure they would have that same “fear of the Lord” that they might have had before I said anything.
St. Ligouri is literally saying that because God’s mercy is so appealing to people, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that we are saved simply because God loves us. At the same time, the idea that God is also about justice seems to turn people off. I mean, why would a loving and merciful God need to exercise justice? He loves all of us, doesn’t he? Absolutely; in fact, it’s why justice is equally important. It’s the other piece to the puzzle. Mercy and justice are complimentary qualities of our God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:
“Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy” (CCC 2091).
So, really, here’s where the confusion starts, I think. Here, the Catechism is talking about “sins against hope,” despair and presumption in particular (CCC 2091). According to the Catholic Church, we ought not to lose hope; that we shouldn’t despair, because our God in Heaven is incredibly merciful and incredibly just. But maybe that still doesn’t really answer the question at hand. Why is it necessary to acknowledge God’s mercy and his justice when we talk about his greatness? What does it have to do with our salvation?
Well… everything, really. This seems to have been the opinion of Church Father, St. Augustine. According to the Catechism, St. Augustine maintained that “the justification of sinners surpasses the creation of the angels in justice, in that it bears witness to a greater mercy” (CCC 1994, my emphasis added). What St. Augustine seems to be saying is that God’s justice is precisely what saves man from death, even a man marked by sin, which is an overwhelming testimony to God’s mercy. In that way, we can come to know justice as a process by which mercy is achieved.
But, of course, there’s another side to that coin. Mercy is not a free pass into heaven. Justice can also be the process by which damnation is judged for a person’s soul. It isn’t, however, for a lack of God’s love. Actually, it is quite beautiful. Divine Mercy is defined as “the love of God beyond what humankind deserves” according to the Modern Catholic Dictionary. Divine Justice, on the other hand, is “the constant and unchanging will of God to give everyone what is due him or her,” according to the same source. Essentially, the difference is what is given to us vs. what is due to us.
These concepts are circular in their function, complimentary in their purpose, and cannot be separated from each other. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation includes God’s mercy and justice:
“In this sacrament, the sinner, placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life” (CCC 1470, my emphasis added)
Really, what it comes down to is an understanding of the reality and gravity of both things. God is merciful; so merciful in his love for us that he’s willing to deliver justice to all of us. He will grant us what is due because he loves us more than we deserve to be loved, even if it means separating us from him.
God’s profound respect for us and our free will is precisely why his mercy is not to be misunderstood, and why his justice should be respected. This Lenten season, I intend to contemplate my death, and amend my life in such a way that I can honor the love of God as it’s portrayed by his mercy and justice.