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Energized discussion was already underway when I walked into my college classroom.

Students were talking about the news report. A young man, stone drunk, had run a red light in Chicago at high speed, T-boning another car. The crash killed parents and grandparents, leaving two young children orphans.

Anger was all over talk radio, social media, and private conversations. Now the outrage was here in my classroom. I set down my discussion notes, took a taste of coffee and listened in.

Soon I was leading the charge: “We should all be furious!” “What a loser!” someone announced. Another chimed in: “No kidding! His callous indifference to human life demands justice.” “Yeah,” declared a third. “Lock him up. Throw away the key. Teach him a lesson!” On it went. Having vented our feelings, the class sank into stillness.

And then her hand went up—the student who seldom spoke, but when she did, you’d better listen. “I hear what you’re all saying,” she began. “I do. What he did was horrible. I’m angry too. I know he must be punished.”

She paused—we sensed that more was coming. “But,” she continued, “I also feel great sadness for that young man, the driver. What’s gone so wrong in his life that by age 19 he’s an alcoholic with a prior DUI? What was his childhood like? Did his parents love him? And now he’s wrecked his life, poor guy.” Silence quilted the room as her questions hung over us.

She had turned the kaleidoscope and now we saw a different picture. The young man’s story had taken on new and more complex dimensions. How should we respond? With justice? With mercy? With both, perhaps?

Reflecting on that classroom exchange, I had to ask myself some uncomfortable questions. The first were psychological. Why is judgment my first response to situations like this? Why isn’t mercy my emotional default? Why am I so often harsh with others?

The second questions were theological. Is God like me—operating from a firm sense of anger and justice that wants to punish? Or is God like my student—feeling, thinking and acting on compassion and mercy that want to restore?

The Bible tells that God loves each person with infinite and unending love. The Hebrew word ahab (translated ‘love’) suggests strong emotional attachment and desire to be with. The Hebrew word hesed (translated ‘steadfast faithfulness’) indicates love that is constant, unswerving loyalty that always offers forgiveness and restoration. The Greek word agape (translated ‘selfless, unconditional love’) is self-giving devotion that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other person. God’s very nature is love (1 John 4:8). “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” God declares (Isaiah 43:4).

The same Bible that affirms that everyone is bathed in the love that flows from God’s friendly heart also declares God’s intense anger at human sin. Hebrew history is filled with divine judgment—from the flood to the exile. Jesus warns his hearers of God’s wrath (John 3:36) and St. Paul threatens God’s judgment on the disobedient (Ephesian 5:6).

God’s anger, I take it, is real. It’s also good. I like what Rob Bell says: “when we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard their food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings?” A good God has to be a God of judgment. I’m always struck that after the public reading of lessons like Amos 8:4-7 (where God promises judgment on those oppressing the needy) or Psalm 7:1-10 (which calls God to rise up in wrath), the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

But we can’t—we must not!—separate God’s justice from God’s love. Since God’s nature is love, everything God does—including anger and punishment—flows from love. I agree with Pope Francis: “mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering them a new chance to convert and believe.” God’s call to salvation is present in judgment.

I was raised to think that God’s anger is retributive, God’s punishment is vengeful and meant to give sinners their just deserts. And so I have to remind myself over and over that God’s judgment is corrective—it is healing punishment meant to reform. God’s wrath is a saving wrath—it’s not an end, but a means to an end: God judges in order to save.

My students fell into two camps—a larger justice crowd and a smaller mercy crowd. In a similar way, Christian tradition has drawn two images of God from the Bible—an angry God of retributive violence and a compassionate God of forgiving love.

My money’s on the second. The prophet Hosea depicts God, not as a harsh judge, but as a loving parent who can’t let go of a wayward child. Having pronounced sentence (11:5-7), God draws back. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger … and I will not come in wrath” (11:8-9).

Jesus came to save, not to condemn, to love enemies, not just friends, to weep over Jerusalem and seek the last missing sheep. In the Nazareth sermon (Luke 4:16-20) outlining his mission, he emphasizes “the year of the Lord’s favor” and omits a key line from his reading of the prophet Isaiah—“the day of vengeance of our God.”

God is more like my merciful student. That’s my conclusion—that’s my theology. Full stop.

James Gould

James Gould taught Philosophy at McHenry County College, Illinois, for 35 years. He has published numerous academic articles in philosophy, theology, bioethics, disability studies, higher education curriculum design -- even motorcycling. He is now active in disability advocacy.


  • This is a wonderful story. Thank you. I wonder if our congregations are shrinking because too often our congregations see more judgement than mercy.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you. And beyond. Nothing like teaching AND learning. How they keep each other company. As Grace makes her way. With us.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you is inadequate for how important your story/reflection is.
    I could never understand the bumper sticker that reads “No peace without justice.” I’d always think, “Then no peace.” I wait for a sticker to read, “No peace without mercy.”

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    You really hit the nail with the head of the hammer, Jim.
    If there is a Hell, it is for correction, refinement and purification. God wants to restore and redeem us not condemn and destroy us. The love (and justice) of our LORD is from everlasting to everlasting. Thanks be to God!

  • T says:

    Thanks Jim. Always good to catch your thoughts. T

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Good essay. It’s not either Justice or Mercy but both Justice and Mercy. Like your shy student, we need to lead with the right feelings (ortho-pathy) to feel the truth of the matter from both sides. Blessed are the humble/meek, but they are not weak, they just have strong feelings & can handle the truth from both sides.

  • Luanne Blossom says:

    Such a tragic event, in so many ways, as the typically quiet student so thoughtfully pointed out. As Christians, we must make every effort to see all sides in something like this, as Jim so eloquently (as always) pointed out here. It is not our job to judge others. It is our job to be like Jesus who loves and forgives us all. It is our job to practice kindness and remember that none of us is promised a tomorrow.

    From the heart.

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