"Ah, I will comfort Myself over My adversaries: and I will be revenged of my enemies." -----Isa. 1:24.
Such is the language of God, when speaking of punishment and vengeance: He says that He is constrained by His justice to take vengeance on His enemies. But, mark you, He begins with the word Heu, "Ah:" this word is an exclamation of grief by which He would give us to understand, that if He were capable of weeping when about to punish, He should weep bitterly at being compelled to afflict us His creatures, whom He has loved so dearly as to give up His life through love for us. " 'Alas' " says Cornelius a Lapide, "is uttered by one who is lamenting and not insulting; God signifies by this word that He is grieving, and that He is unwilling to punish sinners." No, this God, Who is the Father of mercies, and so much loves us, is not of a disposition to punish and afflict, but rather to pardon and console us. For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction. -----Jer. 29:2. But some one will say, since such is His character, why does He now punish us? or, at least, appear as if He meant to punish us? Why so? Because He wishes to be merciful towards us: this anger which He now displays is all mercy and patience.
Let us then, my brethren, understand how the Lord at present appears in wrath, not with a view to our punishment, but in order that we may cleanse ourselves of our sins, and thus enable Him to pardon us. Such is the subject of our discourse: GOD THREATENS TO CHASTISE IN ORDER TO DELIVER US FROM CHASTISEMENT.
The threats of men ordinarily proceed from their pride and impotence; whence, if they have it in their power to take vengeance on an object, they threaten nothing, lest they should thereby give their enemies an opportunity of escape. It is only when they want the power to wreak their vengeance that they betake themselves to threats, in order to gratify their passion, by awakening at least the fears of their enemies. Not so the threats of which God makes use; on the contrary, their nature is quite different. His threats do not arise from His inability to chastise, because He can be avenged when He wills; but He bears with us in order to see us penitent, and thus exempt from punishment. Thou hast mercy upon all because Thou canst do all things, and winkest at the sins of men for the sake of repentance. -----Wisd. 11:24. Neither does He threaten from hatred, in order to torment us with fear; God threatens from love, in order that we may be converted to Him, and thereby escape chastisement: He threatens, because He does not wish to see us lost: He threatens, in fine, because He loves our souls. But Thou sparest all because they are Thine, O Lord, Who lovest souls. -----Wisd. 11:27. He threatens; but notwithstanding bears with us and delays the infliction, because He wishes to see us converted, not lost. He dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance. -----2 Pet. 3:9. Thus the threats of God are all acts of tenderness, and amorous calls of His goodness, by which He means to save us from the punishment which we deserve.
Yet forty days, exclaimed Jonas, and Nineve shall be destroyed. -----Jonas 3:4. Wretched Ninevites, he cries, the day of your chastisement is come; I announce it to you on the part of God: Know that within forty days Nineve shall be destroyed, and cease to exist. But how comes it that Nineve did penance and was not destroyed? And God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way, and God had mercy. -----Jonas 3:10 Whereat Jonas was afflicted, and making lamentation before the Lord, said to Him: Therefore, I went before Thee into Tarsis, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient and of much compassion, and easy to forgive evil. -----Jonas 4:2. He then left Nineve, and was screened from the rays of the burning sun by an ivy which God caused to overshadow his head. But how did the Lord next act? He withered the ivy, whereat Jonas was so much afflicted that he wished for death. God then said to him, Thou hast grieved for the ivy for which Thou hast not labored, nor made it to grow; . . . and shall not I spare Nineve? -----Jonas 4:10. Thou grievest for the ivy which thou hast not created, and shall not I pardon the men who are the work of My hands?
The destruction which the Lord caused to be held out against Nineve was, according to the explanation of St. Basil, not an actual prophecy, but a simple threat, by which he meant to bring about the conversion of that city. The Saint says, that God often appears in wrath because He wishes to deal mercifully with us; and threatens, not with the intention of chastising but of delivering us from chastisement. St. Augustine adds, that when anyone cries out to you "take care," it is a sign he does not mean to injure you. And thus exactly does God act in our regard: He threatens us with chastisement, says St. Jerome, not that He means to inflict it, but to spare us if we profit by the warning. Thou, O Lord, says St. Augustine, art severe, but then most so when Thou wishest to save us; Thou threatenst, but in so threatening Thou hast no other object than to bring us to repentance. In Ps. 55. The Lord could chastise sinners without warning by a sudden death, which should not leave them time for repentance; but no, He displays His wrath, He brandishes His scourge, in order that He may see them reformed, not punished.
The Lord said to Jeremias: thou shalt say to them ----- If so be, they will hearken and be converted every one from his evil way: that I may repent Me of the evil which I think to do unto them. -----Jer. 26:2. Go, He says, and tell the sinners if they wish to hear you, that if they cease from their sins, I shall spare them the chastisements which I intended to have inflicted on them. And now, my brethren, mark me. The Lord addresses you in a similar way out of my mouth. If you amend, He will revoke the sentence of punishment. St. Jerome says: "God is wroth, not with us, but with our sins;" and St. John Chrysostom adds, that if we remember our sins God will forget them. He desires that we being humbled should reform, and crave pardon of Him. Because they are humbled I will not destroy them. -----2 Par. 12:7.
But, in order to amend, we must be led to it by fear of punishment, otherwise, we never should be brought to change our lives. True it is, God protects him who places hope in His mercy. He is the protector of all who trust in Him. -----Ps. 17:31. But he who hopes in the mercy of the Lord is always the man who fears His justice. They that fear the Lord have hoped in the Lord. He is their protector and their helper. -----Ps. 13:11. The Lord often speaks of the rigor of His judgments, and of Hell, and of the great number who go thither. Be not afraid of them who kill the body: . . . fear ye Him who, after He hath killed, hath power to cast into Hell. -----Luke 12:5. Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who enter thereat. -----Matt. 7:13. And why does the Lord so often speak thus? In order that fear may keep us from vice, and from the passions, and from occasions; and that thus we may reasonably hope for salvation, which is only for the innocent, or the penitent, who hope and fear.
Oh, what strength has not the fear of Hell to rein us in from sin! To that end has God created Hell. He has created us, and redeemed us by His death, that we might be happy with Him; He has imposed upon us the obligation of hoping for eternal life, and on that account encourages us, by saying that all those who hope in Him shall be saved. For none of them that wait on Thee shall be confounded. -----Ps. 24:2. On the other hand, it is His wish and command that we should be in fear of eternal damnation. Some heretics hold, that all who are not in sin should consider themselves as assuredly just and predestined; but these have with reason been condemned by the Council of Trent (Sess. 6 can. 14, 15), because such a presumption is as perilous to salvation as fear is conducive to it. And let Him be your dread, and He shall be a sanctification unto you. -----Is. 8:13. The holy fear of God makes man holy. Wherefore David begged of God the grace of fear, in order that fear might destroy in him the inclinations of the flesh. Pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear. -----Ps. 118:120.
We should then fear on account of our sins, but this fear ought not to deject us: it should rather excite us to confidence in the Divine mercy, as was the case with the prophet himself. For Thy name's sake, O Lord, Thou wilt pardon my sin, for it is great. -----Ps. 24:11. How is that? Pardon me because my sin is great? Yes, because the Divine mercy is most conspicuous in the case of greatest misery; and he who has been the greatest sinner is he who glorifies most the Divine mercy, by hoping in God, Who has promised to save all those who hope in Him. He will save them, because they have hoped in Him. -----Ps. 36:40. For this reason it is, Ecclesiasticus says, that the fear of the Lord bringeth not pain, but joy and gladness: The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart, and shall give joy and gladness. Thus this very fear leads to the acquisition of a firm hope in God, which makes the soul happy: He that feareth the Lord shall tremble at nothing, and shall not be afraid, for He is his hope. The soul of him that feareth the Lord is blessed. -----Ecclus. 34:17. Yes, blessed, because fear draws man away from sin. The fear of the Lord driveth out sin, -----Ecclus. 1:27, and at the same time infuses into him a great desire of observing the commandments: Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he shall delight exceedingly in His commandments. -----Ps. 111:1.
We must, then, persuade ourselves that chastisement is not what the nature of God inclines Him to. God, because by His nature He is infinite goodness, says St. Leo, has no other desire than to bless us, and to see us happy. When He punishes, He is obliged to do so in order to satisfy His justice, not to gratify His inclination. Isaias says, that punishment is a work contrary to the heart of God. The Lord shall be angry. . . .t hat He may do His work, His strange work; . . . His work is strange to Him. -----Is. 28:21. And therefore does the Lord say, that He sometimes almost feigns the intention of punishing us. But why does He do so? For this reason: Let every man of you return from his evil way. -----Jer. 18:11. He does so in order to our reformation, and consequently our exemption from the chastisement deserved by us. The Apostle writes, that God Hath mercy on whom He will, and whom He will He hardeneth. -----Rom. 9:18. With regard to which passage, St. Bernard says, that God of Himself wishes to love us, but that we force Him to condemn us. He calls Himself the Father of mercies, not of vengeance. Whence it comes that His tenderness all springs from Himself, and His severity from us.
And who has ever been able to comprehend the greatness of the Divine mercies? David says, that God, even while yet angry, feels compassion for us: Thou hast been angry, and hast had mercy on us. -----Ps. 59:3. "O merciful wrath, which art enkindled but to succor, and threatened but to pardon," exclaims the abbot Beroncosius. "Thou hast shown," continues David, "thou hast shown Thy people hard things, Thou hast made us drunk with the wine of sorrow." God discovers Himself to us armed with a scourge, but He does so in order to see us penitent and contrite for the offences which we are committing against Him: Thou hast given a warning to them that fear Thee: that they may flee before the bow: that Thy beloved may be delivered. He appears with the bow already bent, upon the point of sending off the arrow, but He does not send it off, because He wishes that our terror should bring about amendment, and that thus we should escape the chastisement. That Thy beloved may be delivered. I wish to terrify them, says God, in order that struck by fear they may rise from the bed of sin and return to Me. In their affliction they will rise early to Me. -----Osee 6:1. Yes, the Lord, although He sees us so ungrateful and worthy of punishment, is eager to free us from it, because how ungrateful soever we be, He loves us and wishes us well. Give us help from trouble. Thus, in fine, prayed David; and thus we ought to pray. Grant, O Lord, that this scourge which now afflicts us, may open our eyes, so that we depart from sin; because if we do not here have done with it, sin will lead us to eternal damnation, which is a scourge enduring forever.
What shall we then do, my brethren? Do you not see that God is angered? He can no longer bear with us. The Lord is angry. Do you not behold the scourges of God increasing every day? Our sins increase, says St. John Chrysostom, and our scourges increase likewise. God, my brethren, is wroth: but with all His anger He has commanded me to say, what He formerly commanded to be said by the prophet Zachary: And thou shalt say to them, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Turn ye to Me saith the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you saith the Lord of Hosts. -----Zach. 1:3. Sinners, saith the Lord, you have turned your backs upon Me, and therefore have constrained Me to deprive you of My grace. Do not oblige Me to drive you forever from My face, and punish you in Hell without hope of pardon. Have done with it: abandon sin, be converted to Me, and I promise to pardon you all your offences, and once more to embrace you as My children. Turn ye to Me, saith the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you. Why do you wish to perish? (mark how tenderly the Lord speaks.) And why will you die, O house of Israel. Why will you fling yourselves into that burning furnace? Return ye and live. -----Ezech. 18:31, 32. Return to me, I await you with open arms ready to receive and pardon you.
Doubt not of this, O sinner, continues the Lord. Learn to do well . . . And then come and accuse Me, saith the Lord . . . if your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow. -----Is. 1:17 Take courage, saith the Lord, change your life, come to Me, and if I do not pardon you, accuse Me. As if he were to say, Accuse Me of lying and bad faith; but, no, I shall not be unfaithful: your conscience now so black, shall be My grace become as white as snow. No; I will not chastise you if you reform, says the Lord, because I am God, not man. I will not execute the fierceness of My wrath, . . . because I am God and not man. -----Osee 6:9. He says besides, that men never forget an injury, but that when He sees a sinner penitent, He forgets all his offences. I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done. -----Ezech. 18:2. Let us then at once return to God, but let it be at once. We have offended Him enough already, let us not tempt His anger any further. Behold Him, He calls us, and is ready to pardon us if we repent of our evil deeds, and promise Him to change our lives.
CALAMITIES, CHASTISEMENT, AND THE LOVE OF GOD
By ST. ALPHONSUS LIGUORI
From THE ASCETICAL WORKS
Volume XVII: MISCELLANY, pp. 320-420:
NINE DISCOURSES FOR TIMES OF CALAMITIES
TRANSLATED FROM THE ITALIAN EDITED BY REV EUGENE GRIMM, C.Ss.R.