Roman, my four-year-old asked me this morning in the car, “Mommy, what does ‘mercy’ mean?” Hmmm…how to put that in pre-school terms. So I muddled through an answer that went something like this, “It’s when you know you have done something bad, and you deserve a consequence but you don’t get it. When you don’t get something bad you deserve, that is mercy.”

As I tried to give examples to him of whatmercymight look like in his life, I realized that mercy is often considered the opposite of justice. By definition the two words are antonyms. Justice is receiving what is deserved. Mercy is being pardoned–not receiving what is deserved. Justice requires an equitable return for deeds. Mercy demands no return.

Now this is where things kind of get complicated because mercy and justice may be polar opposites, but they are both honorable traits, good qualities, even essential elements of the nature of God Himself.

Roman needs justice in his young life. He needs reasonable consequences for his actions, in order to train him. As I tried to explain mercy to him today I thought,He’s going to wonder why I don’t operate on the basis of mercy all the time when it comes to disciplines.At four, he doesn’t yet understand the value of justice, which sets the stage for mercy. For Roman also needs mercy. All of us do, because justice holds us accountable for a debt we can never pay.

God’s mercy to us is only effective if we realize the justice that we deserve. God’s justice, His perfect standard, is the black velvet on which the diamond of mercy shines forth. Without justice, mercy would be apathy.

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