A few years ago a man went on a rampage from California to Texas killing and maiming several people. He was apprehended near Van Horn, Texas, where he was incarcerated, tried and convicted of murder. During the trial a local minister testified that, while in jail, the perpetrator had found the Lord, was a new man and that he should be shown mercy.
So what is the relationship between justice and mercy as it applies to each of us?
As we approach the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season I would like to cite a story, a parable, by Boyd K. Packer. It is about what makes it possible for each of us to obtain mercy.
“There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt. He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.
“So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important. The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come.
“But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full. Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.
“’I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,’ he confessed.
“’Then,’ said the creditor, ‘we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.’
“’Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?’ the debtor begged. ‘Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show me mercy?’
“The creditor replied, ‘Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?’
“’I believed in justice when I signed the contract,’ the debtor said. ‘It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally well.’
“’It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,’ the creditor replied. ‘That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.’
“There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other. ‘If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy,’ the debtor pleaded. ‘If I do, there will be no justice,’ was the reply.
“Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served and mercy also?
“There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And it happened this time.
“The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.
“’I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.’ As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, ‘You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.’ And so the creditor agreed.
“The mediator turned to the debtor. ‘If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?’ ‘Oh, yes, yes,’ cried the debtor. ‘You save me from prison and show mercy to me.’ ‘Then,’ said the benefactor, ‘you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.’
“And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.” (Ensign, May 1977, pp.54-55)
Our sins are our spiritual debts. Without Jesus Christ, who is our Savior and Mediator, we would all pay for our sins by suffering spiritual death—separation from God. But because of Him, if we will keep his terms, which are to repent and keep His commandments, we may return to live again with our Heavenly Father.
It is written, “Behold, I have come unto the world…to save the world from sin. Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such have I laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved.” (3 Nephi 9:21-22)