Fr Ralph de Hahn: The Difference Between Mercy And Grace
Fr Ralph De Hahn reflects on the nature of God’s grace and infinite mercy.
The Gospels, as a whole, breathe the spirit of mercy, for the mercy of God, it seems to me, is a central point in Christian revelation. Mercy is the humbling and forgiving love of the Almighty God for sinners. God’s mercy is far beyond man’s limited comprehension.
What if God should judge us according to the measure of true justice? The psalmist asks: “If thou, O Lord, should mark our iniquities, O Lord, who would survive?”(130:3). So how is our mercy related to justice? Mercy is a specifically divine virtue par excellence. Mercy impels us to overstep the measure of justice; it is the overflow beyond the merits of justice. Mercy presupposes some misery, that is, some wretchedness in the object. Psalm 113 tells us something: “Who is like the Lord our God? He stoops down from the heights…from the dust he lifts up the lowly, from his misery he raises the poor and sets him in the company of princes.”
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is a most powerful manifestation of God’s mercy, so is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), and the one of the master who released his servant of his huge debt (Matthew 18:23). I certainly cannot forget the Lord’s death on the cross, when, dying in agony, he prays for his executioners — and for us (Luke 23:34).
We have the testimony of Bible stories where God uses imperfect people to accomplish his purpose. In the Old Testament we meet the likes of David, an adulterer and murderer; Abraham, who was fearful and lied; Jacob, a swindler; Moses, who was stubborn and doubting; Rahab, a prostitute; King Saul, wicked and jealous; to mention only a few.
Then in the New Testament we encounter the doubting Thomas, and Peter, who betrayed his Master. There is Saul (later named Paul), the fanatical persecutor of the first Christians, and Mary Magdalene, who once was possessed by many demons. On Golgotha, the penitential thief hangs alongside Jesus on his cross.
There are so many “broken vessels” in our deeply troubled Church history which speak loudly of the indispensable intervention of God’s most wonderful mercy and grace, without which there is no hope for all humanity.
Mercy is not compassion
So how do mercy and grace interact? It seems to me that mercy is the act of withholding deserved punishment, while grace is the act of endowing unmerited favours. In his mercy God does not give us the punishment we deserve — hell — while in his giving of grace, he offers the gift we do not deserve — and that is heaven! “It is through grace that you have been saved…and not by anything of your own, for nobody can claim credit,” St Paul wrote to the Christians of Ephesus (2:4-9).
But we must not confuse mercy with compassion, which is a very human emotion. Compassion suffers with the sufferer; mercy does not. Compassion is between equals, while mercy is towards an inferior (that is, one with less power, which in relation to God, is all of us). There is a gesture of condescension inherent in all mercy which, we must acknowledge, is more deeply spiritual than compassion. This mercy is eminently a profound supernatural virtue, which glows with radiant beauty in God, and in God alone.
We often refer to divine mercy. Mercy is a compassionate love to the weak and grace is a generous love to the unworthy. Mercy takes us to the path of forgiveness, while grace will hopefully lead us to reconciliation: “What I want is love and mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). And we know the Divine Love is eternal and so also his mercy, and the only love that is untarnished and unconditional.
The book of Lamentations mentions that truth: “We know of Yahweh’s favours in the past yet his kindness is not exhausted” (3:22). We need to heed the Master’s teaching: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). And then take to heart James’ warning that “there is a judgment without mercy for those who have not been merciful themselves” (2:13).
God has indeed displayed his mighty power in all creation and his infinite love and mercy in his work of redeeming us.
Fr Ralph de Hahn is a priest of the archdiocese of Cape Town.
This article was published in the April 2021 issue of The Southern Cross