The prophet Micah made a powerful statement many years ago. He wrote,
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6.8)
What does God want from us? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Any real attempt to live out the fifth beatitude (Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy – Matthew 5.7) will lead you to the ultimate and logical conflict between justice and mercy.
According to the dictionary, justice means “the administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishment.” Mercy means “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Or, to give working definitions, justice is “to make things right” and mercy is “not giving someone what they deserve.”
So, the prophet tells us that God wants us to work towards making things right but to not give others what they deserve? God wants us to walk north but move south?
The problem is that mercy is not something that we show to others in a vacuum. To show forbearance (which means “to refrain from the enforcement of something”) implies that I am in a situation where something (a debt, a right, or an obligation) needs to be enforced. Justice demands it. And yet Jesus is telling me to show mercy, to refrain from the enforcement of justice.
At this point, the “walk humbly with our God” instruction is easy. The call to act towards justice but to show mercy leads me to seek the daily leading of the Spirit to know how to speak and how to act in every given moment. As others have noted, we want mercy from others but give justice in return. The sinful heart lashes out in justice much more easily than in mercy. How hard it is to leave room for the wrath of God, choosing to demonstrate love and mercy to my enemies instead (Romans 12.19-21)?