On the Abuse of Divine Mercy
Sermon by St. Alphonsus Liguori
In this day’s gospel we read, that a certain man fell into the hands of robbers, who, after having taken his money, wounded him, and left him half dead. A Samaritan who passed by, saw him, and taking pity on him, bound up his wounds, brought him to an inn, and left him to the care of the host, saying: “Take care of him.” These words I this day address to those, if there be any such among you, who, though their souls are wounded by sin, instead of attending to the care of them, continually aggravate the wounds by new sins, and thus abuse the mercy of God, who preserves their lives, that they may repent, and not be lost forever. I say to you: Brethren, take care of your souls, which are in a very bad state; have compassion on them. “Have pity on thy own soul (Eccl. xxx. 24).” Your souls are sick, and what is worse they are near the eternal death of hell; for he who abuses to excess the divine mercy, is on the point of being abandoned by the mercy of God. This shall be the subject of the present discourse.
St. Augustine says that the devil deludes Christians in two ways “by despair and hope.” After a person has committed sin, the enemy, by placing before his eyes the rigour of divine justice, tempts him to despair of the mercy of God. But, before he sins, the devil by representing to him the divine mercy, labours to make him fearless of the chastisement due to sin. Hence the saint gives the following advice: “After sin, hope for mercy; before sin, fear justice.” If, after sin, you despair of God’s pardon, you offend him by a new and more grievous sin. Have recourse to His mercy, and He will pardon you. But, before sin, fear God’s justice, and trust not to His mercy; for, they who abuse the mercy of God to offend him, do not deserve to be treated with mercy. Abulensis says, that the man who offends justice may have recourse to mercy; but to whom can they have recourse, who offend and provoke mercy against themselves?
When you intend to commit sin, who, I ask, promises you mercy from God? Certainly God does not promise it. It is the devil that promises it, that you may lose God and be damned. “Beware,” says St. John Chrysostom, “never to attend to that dog that promises thee mercy from God (Hom. 50, ad Pop).”
If, beloved sinners, you have hitherto offended God, hope and tremble: if you desire to give up sin, and if you detest it, hope; because God promises pardon to all who repent of the evil they have done. But if you intend to continue in your sinful course, tremble lest God should wait no longer for you, but cast you into hell.
Why does God wait for sinners? Is it that they may continue to insult Him? No; He waits for them that they may renounce sin, and that thus He may have pity on them, and forgive them. “Therefore the Lord waiteth, that he may have mercy on you.” (Isa. xxx. 1, 8.) But when He sees that the time which he gave them to weep over their past iniquities is spent in multiplying their sins, He begins to inflict chastisement, and He cuts them off in the state of sin, that, by dying, they may cease to offend Him. Then He calls against them the very time He had given them for repentance. “He hath called against me the time (Lam. i. 15).” “The very time,” says St. Gregory, “comes to judge.”
O common illusion of so many damned Christians! We seldom find a sinner so abandoned to despair as to say: I will damn myself. Christians sin, and endeavour to save their souls. They say: “God is merciful: I will commit this sin, and will afterwards confess it.” Behold the illusion, or rather the snare, by which Satan draws so many souls to hell. “Commit sin,” he says, “and confess it afterwards.” But listen to what the Lord says: “And say not, the mercy of the Lord is great; He will have mercy on the multitude of my sins (Eccl. v. 6.).” Why does He tell you not to say, that the mercy of God is great? Attend to the words contained in the following verse: “For mercy and wrath come quickly from Him, and His wrath looketh upon sinners (Ibid., ver. 7).” The mercy of God is different from the acts of His mercy; the former is infinite, the latter are finite. God is merciful, but He is also just. St. Basil says, that sinners only consider God as merciful and ready to pardon, but not as just and prepared to inflict punishment. Of this the Lord complained one day to St. Bridget: “I am just and merciful: sinners regard Me only as merciful.” St. Basil’s words are: “Bonus est Dominus sed etiam Justus, nolimus Deum ex dimidia parte cogitare.” God is just, and, being just, he must punish the ungrateful. Father John Avila used to say, that to bear with those who avail themselves of the mercy of God to offend Him, would not be mercy, but a want of justice.
Mercy, as the divine mother said, is promised to those who fear, and not to those who insult the Lord. “And His mercy to them that fear Him (Luke i 50).”
Some rash sinners will say: God has hitherto shown me so many mercies; why should He not here after treat me with the same mercy? I answer: He will show you mercy, if you wish to change your life; but if you intend to continue to offend Him, He tells you that He will take vengeance on your sins by casting you into hell. “Revenge is mine, and I will repay them in due time, that their foot may slide (Deut. xxxii. 35).” David says, that “except you be converted,” He will “brandish His sword (Ps. vii. 13).” The Lord has bent His bow, and waits for your conversion; but if you resolve not to return to Him, He will in the end cast the arrow against you, and you shall be damned. O God! there are some who will not believe that there is a hell until they fall into it. Can you, beloved Christians, complain of the mercies of God, after He has shown you so many mercies by waiting for you so long? You ought to remain always prostrate on the earth to thank Him for His mercies, saying: “The mercies of the Lord that we are not consumed (Lamen. iii. 32).” Were the injuries which you offered to God committed against a brother, he would not have borne with you. God has had so much patience with you; and He now calls you again. If, after all this, He shall send you to hell, will He do you any wrong? “What is there,” He will say, “that I ought to do more for my vineyard, that I have not done to it (Isa. v. 4)?” Impious wretch! what more ought I to do for you that I have not done?
St. Bernard says, that the confidence which sinners have in God’s goodness when they commit sin, procures for them, not a blessing, but a malediction from the Lord. “Est infidelis fiducia solius ubique maledictionis capax, cum videlicet in spe peccamus (Serm, iii., de Annunc).” O deceitful hope, which sends so many Christians to hell! St. Augustine says: “Sperant, ut peccent! Vae perversa spe (In Ps. cxliv).”
They do not hope for the pardon of the sins of which they repent; but they hope that, though they continue to commit sin, God will have mercy upon them; and thus they make the mercy of God serve as a motive for continuing to offend Him.
Accursed hope! hope which is an abomination to the Lord! “And their hope the abomination (Job xi. 20).” This hope will make God hasten the execution of His vengeance; for surely a master will not defer the punishment of servants who offend him because he is good. Sinners, as St. Augustine observes, trusting in God’s goodness, insult Him, and say: “God is good; I will do what I please (Tract, xxxiii. in Joan).” But, alas! how many, exclaims the same St. Augustine, has this vain hope deluded! “They who have been deceived by this shadow of vain hope cannot be numbered.” St. Bernard writes, that Lucifer’s chastisement was accelerated, because, in rebellion against God, he hoped that he should not be punished for his rebellion. Ammon, the son of king Manasses, seeing that God had pardoned the sins of his father, gave himself up to a wicked life with the hope of pardon; but, for Ammon there was no mercy. St. John Chrysostom says, that Judas was lost because, trusting in the goodness of Jesus Christ, he betrayed Him. “Fidit in lenitate Magistri.”
He that sins with, the hope of pardon, saying: “I will afterwards repent, and God will pardon me:” is, according to St. Augustine, “not a penitent, but a scoffer.” The Apostle tells us that “God is not mocked (Gal. vi. 7).”
It would be a mockery of God to offend Him as often and as long as you please, and always to receive the pardon of your offences.
“For what things a man shall sow,” says St. Paul, “those also shall he reap (Ibid., ver. 8).” They who sow sins, can hope for nothing but the hatred of God and hell. “Despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering (Rom. ii. 4).” Do you, O sinner, despise the riches of the goodness, of the patience, and long-suffering of God towards you? He uses the word riches, because the mercies which God shows us, in not punishing our sins, are riches more valuable to us than all treasures. “Knowest thou not,” continues the Apostle, “that the benignity of God leadeth thee to penance (Ibid)?”
Do you not know that the Lord waits for you, and treats you with so much benignity, not that you may continue to sin, but that you may weep over the offences you have offered to Him?
For, says St. Paul, if you persevere in sin and do not repent, your obstinacy and impenitence shall accumulate a treasure of wrath against the day of wrath, that is, the day on which God shall judge you. “According to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up wrath, against the day of wrath, and revelation of the just judgment of God (Ibid., verse 5).”
To the hardness of the sinner shall succeed his abandonment by God, Who shall say of the soul that is obstinate in sin, what he said of Babylon: “We would have cured Babylon; but she is not healed; let us forsake her (Jer. li. 9).”
And how does God abandon the sinner? He either sends him a sudden death, and cuts him off in sin, or He deprives him of the graces which would be necessary to bring him to true repentance; He leaves him with the sufficient graces with which he can, but will not, save his soul. The darkness of his understanding, the hardness of his heart, and the bad habits which he has contracted, will render his conversion morally impossible. Thus, he shall not be absolutely but morally abandoned.
“I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be wasted (Isa. v. 5).” When the master of the vineyard destroys its hedges, does he not show that he abandons it? It is thus that God acts when He abandons a soul. He takes away the hedge of holy fear and remorse of conscience, and leaves the soul in darkness, and then vices crowd into the heart. “Thou hast appointed darkness, and it is night: in it shall all the beasts of the wood go about (Ps. ciii. 20).”
And the sinner, abandoned in an abyss of sins, will despise admonitions, excommunications, divine grace, chastisement, and hell: he will make a jest of his own damnation. “The wicked man, when he is come into the depth of sin, contemneth (Prov. xviii. 3).”
“Why,” asks the Prophet Jeremias, “doth the way of the wicked prosper (Jer. xii. 1)?” He answers: “Gather them together as sheep for a sacrifice (v. 3).” Miserable the sinner who is prosperous in this life!
The prosperity of sinners is a sign that God wishes to give them a temporal reward for some works which are morally good, but that He reserves them as victims of His justice for hell, where, like the accursed cockle, they shall be cast to burn for all eternity.
“In the time of the harvest, I will say to the reapers: Gather up the first cockle, and bind it in bundles to burn (Matt. xiii. 30).”
Thus, not to be punished in this life is the greatest of God’s chastisements on the wicked, and has been threatened against the obstinate sinner by the Prophet Isaias. “Let us have pity on the wicked, but he will not learn justice (Isa. xxvi. 10).” On this passage St. Bernard says: This mercy I do not wish for: it is above all wrath. “Misericordiam hanc nolo; super oimiem iram misericordia ista (Serm, xlii., in Cant).”
And what greater chastisement than to be abandoned into the Lands of sin, so that, being permitted by God to fall from sin to sin, the sinner must in the end go to suffer as many hells as he has committed sins?”
Add thou iniquity upon their iniquity. . . . let them be “blotted out of the book of the living (Ps. lxviii. 28, 29).” On these words Bellarmine writes: “There is no punishment greater than when sin is the punishment of sin.” It would be better for such a sinner to die after the first sin; because by dying under the load of so many additional iniquities, he shall suffer as many hells as he has committed sins. This is what happened to a certain comedian in Palermo, whose name was Caesar. He one day told a friend that Father La Nusa, a missionary, foretold him that God should give him twelve years to live, and that if within that time he did not change his life, he should die a bad death. Now, said he to his friend, I have travelled through so many parts of the world: I have had many attacks of sickness, one of which nearly brought me to the grave; but in this month the twelve years shall be completed, and I feel myself in better health than in any of the past years. He then invited his friend to listen to a new comedy which he had composed. But, what happened? On the 24th November, 1688, the day fixed for the comedy, as he was going on the stage, he was seized with apoplexy, and died suddenly. He expired in the arms of a female comedian. Thus the scene of this world ended miserably for him.
Let us make the application to ourselves, and conclude the discourse. Brethren, I entreat you to give a glance at all the bygone years of your life: look at the grievous offences you have committed against God, and at the great mercies which He has shown to you, the many lights He has bestowed upon you, and the many times He has called you to a change of life.
By this sermon he has today given you a new call. He appears to me to say to you: “What is there that I ought to do to my vineyard, that I have not done to it (Isa. v. 4)?” What more ought I to do for you that I have not done? What do you say? What answer have you to make? Will you give yourselves to God, or will you continue to offend Him?
Consider, says St. Augustine, that the punishment of your sins has been deferred, not remitted; “unfruitful tree! The axe has been deferred. Be not secure: you shall be cut off.” If you abuse the divine mercy, you shall be cut off; vengeance shall soon fall upon you. What do you wait for? Do you wait till God sends you to hell? The Lord has been hitherto silent; but He is not silent forever. When the time of vengeance shall arrive He will say: “These things hast thou done, and I was silent. Thou thoughtest unjustly that I should be like to thee: but I will reprove thee, and set before thy face (Ps. xlix. 21).” He will set before your eyes the graces which he bestowed upon you, and which you have despised: these very graces shall judge and condemn you.
Brethren, resist no longer the calls of God; tremble lest the call which He gives you today may be the last call for you. Go to confession as soon as possible, and make a firm resolution to change your lives. It is useless to confess your sins, if you afterwards return to your former vices.
But you will perhaps say that you have not strength to resist the temptations by which you are assailed. Listen to the words of the Apostle: “God is faithful, Who will not permit you to be tempted above that which you are able (1 Cor. x. 13).” God is faithful: He will not permit you to be tempted above your strength. And if of yourself you have not strength to overcome the devil, ask it from God, and He will give it to you. “Ask, and you shall receive (John xvi. 24).” “Praising,” said David, “I will call on the Lord, and I shall be saved from my enemies (Ps. xvii. 4).” And St. Paul said: “I can do all things in Him Who strengthened me (Phil. iv. 13).” Of myself I can do nothing; but with the divine assistance I can do all things. Recommend yourselves to God in all temptations, and God will enable you to resist them, and you shall not fall.
The Pope has spread abroad belief in a false mercy, one which – according to St Alphonsus – might take souls to Hell.
Is the optimistic reliance on this false mercy, this failure to understand that unrepentant sin will take souls to Hell, one of the reasons for the growing number of blatant scandals we are witnessing today; double-living clergy, laity living in manifest public sin receiving Holy Communion and such like? Share your thoughts…