“If Hitler repented before he died, after all he had done, would he be able to go to Heaven?”
You know, just some light, casual conversations on a Friday afternoon.
“Yes, if he repented….You don’t like that answer, do you?”
“No, I think he should be in Hell.”
“Let me ask you a question,” I said, knowing that sometimes asking questions is the only way to escort them to the doorstep of truth. “Where do you draw the line? How many people can someone kill or order killed and get to Heaven?”
“So nobody who has ever killed anyone could have a conversion and go to Heaven?”
“Are there any other sins that you think God should be unable to forgive?”
“But do you see the problem with choosing what is too much for God to forgive?” And he did, but he still wasn’t convinced that God should forgive Hitler if he repented.
This interaction prompted a much longer conversation than I expected. Our starting point was the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday and it bothered some that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wandering son were all received with joy and the ones that remained weren’t so celebrated. The father in Luke’s Gospel extending abundant mercy to the younger son was troublesome and annoying to them. Why does the one who wanders get a party and the one who stays gets nothing?
In the classroom, it is easy for me to be reasonable and to present “God’s position” clearly. His mercy is impractical and overwhelming, but what a grace that it is so. Why should we be bothered that He desires to be generous and forgiving with the repentant sinner? We desire the same when we are the returning sinner. Shouldn’t we want Him to extend that mercy to others?
Of course, the correct answer is that we do want God to be merciful to all. But often the real answer is that we want Him to be merciful only up to a certain point. Like my student, we draw lines where we think mercy should stop because the sin is too much. Yet none of us properly pays for our sin. Christ did that. I didn’t earn salvation and living as I ought doesn’t “make up” for the times I’ve failed to live that way. My debt was paid by someone else. So why does it irk us when God treats “big” sins with the same merciful gaze that He treats “small” sins?
Perhaps because it feels clearer when we can look at someone and say, “At least I didn’t do that.” Instead of asking the question of if we have a truly converted heart, drawing a salvation line makes us able to neatly categorize people into “good” and “bad,” while always making sure we fall on the good side of the line. But if God is able and willing to wipe away the biggest sins, where does that leave me? Where does that leave of my nice system of personal ethics?
The mercy of God completely demolishes the neat delineations we make for ourselves and others. It doesn’t fit our measure or ability to be merciful. Perhaps sometimes we extend mercy, but we struggle to do it always. I mean, I do, at least. And it is hard for me to imagine well a God who is lavish in His mercy always. It is such a foreign idea because I don’t see it mirrored in the world around me.
I know He is merciful, I trust that He is merciful, and I try to live as though He is merciful. Yet the abundance of it continues to surprise me. In the abstract, I grasp how God could be merciful to Hitler. If I think about it too much, I start to wonder how it is possible. But I also wonder about it for me, too. How many times can I make the same mistake and still expect to receive God’s mercy? I want it to be unending, yet I find myself feeling like I should have a limit, a maximum, a line where God just stops, a point of frustration too much to be breached by mercy.
But God isn’t me. He isn’t prone to frustration, hampered by human pride, or an unwillingness to surrender. I remember talking to my spiritual director a few years ago and saying that I thought God should be frustrated with me because I was frustrated with myself. And he said, “Why? What good would that do?” I had to admit that God, the infinite Creator of all, being frustrated with me didn’t really accomplish anything.
With that in mind, the reality that I do not frustrate God, I seek to trust in His mercy. A mercy that baffles my students when they hear about its depth. A mercy that surprises me when I see how unending it is my own self. A mercy that pours itself out upon every person, regardless of the magnitude of the sin or how much they think they haven’t earned it. A mercy without end and without cost. It isn’t only for the wandering prodigal son or the foolish sheep. This is for each of us, the ones close to God and the ones far away. The ones who know of His love and the ones who question it daily. Each of us, through the greatness of His love, have access to His mercy.
It is an abundant, scandalous gift. All we need to do is receive.