There is a fairly famous scripture from the Book of Mormon that tells us that “mercy cannot rob justice.” (See Alma 42.) Alma was instructing his son on some points of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the son felt that receiving punishment from God was cold and unfair of a Heavenly Father.
Perhaps this would be true if we were sent down here without any help or guidance, but the plan, our options, and the consequences have been clearly outlined. Whether or not we like the plans or the consequences cannot remove us from this reality.
Before the earth was even formed, we agreed to a plan that would make us mortal, remove our memory of our life with Heavenly Father, preserve our ability to think and act for ourselves, and provide a Savior who would give us a merciful plan that would make our success possible.
The truth is, God is perfect. Because of His perfection, anything less than perfect cannot live or exist with Him. Justice requires that, the first time we willfully make a poor choice or even make a mistake in ignorance, we no longer have the opportunity to return home to an Eternal Father who loves us dearly.
Anyone who is acquainted with the learning process knows that learning, growth, and progress is a journey that requires mistakes. If we already have perfect knowledge, we have nothing left to learn! The whole point of mortality was to give us the opportunity to learn to overcome temptations and trials. By default, we would have to fall and we would need a Savior.
Some people who hear about the mercy and love of our Father in Heaven and of Jesus seem to come up with ideas that just won’t fly:
- Believing that God really doesn’t intend to punish anyone, so it doesn’t matter what we do – we will all be rewarded in the end (how could God then be fair to those who have obeyed and followed the Savior?)
- Thinking that the punishment won’t be all that tough, and then God will welcome us home (the Savior suffered beyond description, and has told us in the Doctrine and Covenants that those who won’t accept the Plan of Mercy here will suffer as much as He suffered, so that doesn’t wash)
Those who hold these ideas are convinced that mercy will somehow rob justice. There is no way that mercy can magically protect us from the requirements of justice. Either we live by the laws and covenants of mercy, or we answer the demands of justice.
What fascinates me is the number of people that I find on the other end of the spectrum. Somehow, they have convinced themselves that the requirements of mercy are somehow nearly impossible to meet! They take familiar phrases from LDS teachings and go to town:
- “By grace ye are saved after all you can do” – I’m not sure that I really put my best effort into that. I probably have to try harder to qualify for blessings
- “I do my best, and God does the rest.” – (same ideas as the first one)
- Faith without works is dead (emphasis on works)
What it really boils down to is some belief that we are being held to some unrealistically high standard, that God really isn’t in this to change who we are and to help us grow to become better, and that we have to prove that we are good enough to qualify for mercy.
In other words, there is some belief in the back of their minds that justice can swoop in and point out an infraction, and we are no longer covered by the mercy we have so diligently sought. I believe that justice has no more power to rob mercy than mercy can rob justice.
The Way I Understand It
If I have studied, prayed, and come to the correct understanding, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle. God really does know our thoughts and the intents of our hearts, and He knows when we are just playing around, pretending to repent and obey him. He also knows when we desire to be righteous, but we fall short because we are fallen and mortal.
The way I understand the covenant of mercy, the object is to honestly TRY. Repenting isn’t a one-time life event. Repentance is a way of life. It is continually correcting our course, asking for forgiveness, and trusting that we will receive divine guidance as we need it to be able to keep the commandments, follow the Savior, and (step-by-step) grow into the character that we were sent here to develop.
A seasoned teacher expects that every student will eventually encounter a lesson where he or she cannot understand the material the first time. They bomb the test, and often feel very discouraged – especially if they have been making good progress and achieving high goals up until the difficult concept is encountered. When things come easy, human nature tells us that this new hard thing must mean that we have a fatal flaw.
A good teacher will not only reteach the concept and make sure the student has mastered it, he or she will also comfort the student and explain that they may have to work harder for now, but they are very normal and still doing well.
Isn’t that what our Father does for us?
In the end, I believe the Atonement covers so much more than we really ever stop to consider:
- Forgiveness of our sin and rebellion as we turn and are willing to cast away our sins and pride
- Help and aid to overcome those sins and weaknesses that we are repenting of
- Inspiration and guidance to help make the next steps
- Comfort for ourselves when we suffer at the hands of others and do not deserve
- Comfort for ourselves when we suffer for something that we do deserve
- Comfort for others that we may have hurt willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly
- Making amends and repaying our debts when we owe them but have no way of paying
In the end, I am grateful that mercy cannot rob justice, but I am more grateful that justice cannot rob mercy. When we accept the covenant of mercy and live with true intent to keep our part of that covenant, we can be assured that God will uphold His side of the bargain.