St. Augustine says the devil deceives men in two ways: by despair and by hope. After the sinner has sinned, the devil tempts him to despair through terror of the Divine justice. Before he sinned, he encouraged him to it by the hope of Divine mercy. Therefore does the Saint give this counsel: After sin, hope for mercy: before sin, fear Judgment.
We read in the Parable of the Cockle in St. Matthew, that the cockle having grown up in a field together with the wheat, the servants desired to go and pluck it up: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? But the Master replied: “No, let it grow, and then it shall be gathered and be cast in the fire”: In the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle and bind it into bundles to burn. From this Parable we learn, on the one hand, the patience of the Lord with sinners; and, on the other hand, His rigour with the obstinate. St. Augustine says that the devil deceives men in two ways: “by despair and by hope.” After the sinner has sinned, he tempts him to despair through terror of Divine justice; but before he sins, he encourages him to it by the hope of Divine mercy. Therefore does the Saint thus counsel everyone: “After sin, hope in mercy; before sin, fear judgment.” Yes; because he deserves not mercy who makes use of the mercy of God only to offend Him. Mercy is shown to him who fears God, not to him who avails himself of it to exclude fear: “He who offends against justice,” says Abulensis, “may have recourse to mercy; but he who offends against mercy itself, to whom can he have recourse?”
Rarely is a sinner found so desperate as positively to desire his own damnation. Sinners wish to sin without losing the hope of being saved. They sin, and say: God is merciful; I will commit this sin, and then I will confess it: “God is good; I will do what I please;” behold how sinners talk, says St. Augustine. But, O God, so also spoke many who are now in hell!
Say not, says the Lord, the mercies of God are great; however many sins I may commit, by an act of sorrow I shall be pardoned: Say not, the mercy of the Lord is great: He will have mercy on the multitude of my sins. (Ecclus. v. 6). Speak not thus, says God. And why? For mercy and wrath quickly come from him, and his wrath looketh upon sinners. (Ecclus. v. 7). The mercy of God is infinite; but the acts of this mercy (in this or that particular case) are finite. God is merciful but He is also just. “I am just and merciful,” said the Lord one day to St. Bridget; “sinners regard Me only as merciful.” Sinners, says St. Basil, choose to see God only under one aspect: “The Lord is good, but He is also just; we will not consider Him only on one side.” To bear with those who make use of the mercy of God only to offend Him the more, would not, said Blessed John of Avila, be mercy, but a want of justice. Mercy is promised to him who fears God, not to him who abuses it. “His mercy is to them that fear Him,” as the Divine Mother sang. The obstinate are threatened with justice: and as, according to St. Augustine, God deceives not in His promises, so neither does He deceive in His, threats: “He Who is true to His promises, is true also, to His threats.”
From this day henceforth, O Lord, I will never more betray Thee, as I have done in past times. Thou hast borne with me so long, in order that I might one day learn to love Thy goodness. Behold this day has, I trust, arrived. O my God, I love Thee above all things, and I value Thy grace more than all the kingdoms of the world; rather than lose it, I am ready to lose my life a thousand times. My God, for the love of Jesus Christ, grant me holy perseverance until death, together with Thy holy love. Do not permit that I ever again betray Thee, and cease to love Thee. Mary, thou art my hope; obtain for me this perseverance, and I ask for nothing more.
Beware, says St. John Chrysostom, when the devil, not God, promises thee Divine mercy that thou mayest sin: “Take care not to receive that dog which holds out to you the mercy of God.” Woe, adds St. Augustine, woe to him who hopes in order that he may sin! “He hopes, in order that he may sin: woe to that perverse hope!” Oh, how many, says the Saint, have been deceived and lost through this vain hope! “They are innumerable whom the shadow of this vain hope has deceived.” Unhappy he who abuses the mercy of God, that he may insult Him the more! St. Bernard says, that Lucifer was on this account so speedily punished–because He rebelled in the hope of not receiving punishment. King Manasses was a sinner; but he was afterwards converted, and God pardoned him: his son Ammon, seeing that his father was so easily forgiven, gave himself up to a bad life in the hope of pardon; but for Ammon there was no mercy. St. John Chrysostom asserts that Judas was lost because he sinned confiding in the benignity of Jesus Christ: “He trusted in the meekness of his Master.” In fine, God bears with sin, but He does not bear for ever. Were God to bear for ever, no one would be lost; whereas the most common opinion is, that the greater part even of Christians (speaking of adults) are lost: Wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction; and many there are that go in thereat. (Matt. vii. 13).
He who offends God in the hope of pardon “is a scoffer, not a penitent,” says St. Augustine. But, on the other hand, St. Paul says, God is not mocked. (Gal. vi. 7). It would be mocking God to continue to offend Him whenever we please, and then to think to gain Heaven. What things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap. (Gal. vi. 8). He who sows in sin has no reason to expect anything but punishment and hell. The net with which the devil drags to hell almost all those Christians who are lost is this delusion, by which he says to them: Sin freely, because, with all your sins, you will be saved. But God curses him who sins in the hope of pardon. The hope of the sinner after sin, when accompanied by repentance is dear to God; but the hope of the obstinate is an abomination to Him: Their hope the abomination of the soul. (Job xi. 20). Such a hope provokes God to punish, as a master would be provoked by a servant who offended him because of his goodness.
Ah, my God, behold, I have been one of those who offended Thee because of Thy goodness to me! Ah, Lord, wait for me; do not forsake me yet; for I hope, through Thy grace, never again to provoke Thee to abandon me. I repent, O Infinite Goodness, of having offended Thee, and of having thus abused Thy patience. I thank Thee for having waited for me until now.
(Wednesday Meditation for First Week of Lent – by St Alphonsus Liguori)