A Good Dad Employs Both Justice and Mercy

With God as their role model and faith on their minds, fathers must carefully balance strength and goodness

It’s the most dreaded threat that misbehaving children hear their moms make: “Wait ’til your father gets home!”

For kids who have gone astray, “waiting until Dad gets home” usually meant a firm swat on the behind or, worse, writing 1,000 times that “I will not misbehave again.”

In my family, my mother was the face of mercy, while my father was the face of God from the Old Testament — full of a fiery justice and certainly not to be ignored or disobeyed.

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I never thought of my father as being merciful, but back then, mercy to me meant not being punished. It wasn’t until much later in my life, especially after becoming a mother and seeing my husband parent our children, that I realized what mercy really meant.

Mercy and justice often compete in today’s society. If you’re being just, you’re not being merciful. If you show mercy, you’re not serving justice. For too many people who misunderstand the value of mercy and justice, there is no way a person can do both at the same time, unless you’re God.

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Granted, no person can show perfect mercy and perfect justice. However, we are called to be merciful as our Father is in heaven, as well as maintain a just society. These are not contradictory concepts, but rather complementary and stemming from an unconditional love that God has for His children and the love a parent has for his or her child.

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Even at the end of His life — in the midst of His suffering, death, and rejection — Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness. And he asked His Father for mercy and forgiveness for everyone past, present, and future who has sinned and rejected him.

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God has unconditional love for all of us. He loved us so much that He sent His only Son into this world to die for us. This unconditional love is the greatest gift of life. It is also a great mystery that parents know firsthand: to love a child despite that child’s misbehavior.

But does this mean that the consequences of our actions are somehow vanquished?

Our society believes that showing mercy and love means patting the misbehaved on the back without teaching the wrongness of his or her actions. Somehow, if a parent points out the wrongdoing — well, then that parent isn’t showing mercy, love, or charity. However, the presences of love and mercy don’t preclude accepting the consequences of one’s actions.

Christ did not die so that we can go on living our lives as sinners. God did not sacrifice His only son so that we could continue to reject Him. Actions do have consequences, including punishment. Unconditional love and mercy means that the loss of love is not one of those consequences.

When a child misbehaves, it is the parent’s responsibility to correct the behavior. Does this include punishment? Sometimes, yes, if necessary.

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Dads are often seen as the disciplinarians of the household. They are the ones who administer justice. This seems to be paradoxical to the love and mercy we are called to show. However, without punishment or corrective behavior, a child cannot experience the consequences of his actions in a small way before stepping out into the world and experiencing painful and often life-altering consequences later on.

In his letter to the Hebrew, Saint Paul tells us: “My son, do not undervalue the correction which the Lord sends thee, do not be unmanned when he reproves they faults. It is where he loves that he bestows correction; there is no recognition for any child of his, without chastisement. Be patient, then, while the correction lasts; God is treating you as hi children. Was there ever a son whom his father did not correct? … For the time being, all correction is painful rather than pleasant; but afterwards, when it has done its work of discipline, it yields a harvest of good dispositions, to our great peace” (Heb 12:5-11).

Therefore, justice and punishment are part of the greater reality of mercy: “Mercy is not opposed to justice.”

If done for the child’s sake, and not out of frustration or anger, acting with justice can save a child from a life of great woes. When a father corrects a child’s action through teaching, which can sometimes include punishment, he is acting in a way similar to how God acts with us.

With mercy and justice, God reaches out and shows us the wrongness of our actions. He also calls us to convert and follow His ways instead.

“Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe … Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: Anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of justice” (Misericordiae Vultus, 21).

When fathers discipline their children, it’s not out of a lack of mercy, but rather a fulfillment of it. By keeping his children’s long-term interests in mind — i.e., how the child will live his or her life — he is using his authority to teach the difference between right and wrong to spare the child from a life of unhappiness.

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It may not be seen as such. Through the eyes of a young child, a father’s justice may seem mean and harsh. However, as children become adults and reap the benefits of a father’s love, that anger at a dad’s just actions turns to gratitude. Kids come to realize that without a good father who exhibits both mercy and justice, they would not have a life full of happiness and satisfaction.

Fathers must hold the tension between mercy and justice with a loving hand. By remembering his children’s best interests, and recognizing the lifelong consequences of wrongdoing that goes uncorrected, he is sparing his children a life of disappointment. This is indeed great mercy.

Steffani Jacobs is a freelance writer based in the Twin Cities area. She has written about everything from military history and weaponry to theology and church doctrine. 

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