It occurred to me recently that I’ve been hearing two very different facts about God’s mercy. One fact is that he is ever merciful. The other fact is that if we don’t repent we go to hell. So which is it? Can they both be true? Is mercy eternal or is it temporary?
Mercy as an attribute
We know that God is merciful. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have given us a Savior to redeem us from our fall from God’s grace. Our Father in Heaven may be the great and eternal law giver, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be merciful as well. What we need to understand is that because his role in the Godhead is to uphold the laws that govern the universe, which includes those laws that affect our own eternal progress, he can’t be directly merciful to us and still exact justice for the laws we break.
The scriptures are very clear that God cannot tolerate sin with the least degree of allowance. In Doctrine and covenants 1:31-33 we are shown both sides of this issue. Verse 31 tells us the underlying fact that the law giver cannot tolerate sin in any way. Breaking commandments is completely unacceptable.
31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;
Verse 32 tells us that if we repent the Lord will forgive us. So mercy can be shown to those who violate the laws of happiness. The commandments are the laws of happiness. Eternal life, the kind of life God lives, can only be enjoyed and obtained by living the laws that generate that kind of joy or happiness. That is why I refer to the commandments as laws of happiness.
32 Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;
The question is, if I break a commandment can I repent at any time? Do I have only so long before I am not allowed to repent any more? Are there punishments attached to not repenting by certain deadlines? Would a deadline invalidate his mercy by forcing me to either repent by a certain date or get punished for it? Hmmm.
Isn’t mercy, as an attribute, part of God’s eternal character? I mean, it isn’t like he loves us today and will forgive us this week, but next week he becomes rigid and unforgiving, right? Well yes and no.
What we need to remember is that when the plan of salvation was laid out for us in the premortal world, we understood that the mercy we would be granted could only be granted for a limited amount of time. After all, mortality doesn’t go on for eternity. Once we entered the world of fallen man, the clock started to tick down. The timer is now running from wherever it started at to the zero hour. At some point the mercy offered us through Christ’s atoning sacrifice must either be accepted and used or we will have to pay for our own sins.
In verse 33 of Doctrine and Covenants 1 the Lord makes that very clear.
33 And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.
When the Lord says that his Spirit will not always strive with man, he is telling us that his ability to show us mercy and allow us to repent can only last so long. After that point we will be judged as being interested in living with him for eternity or not. We can’t stretch this out indefinitely. At some point, in the very near future, each of us must make a choice, and that choice will be for eternity.
Addition and Subtraction
But what is he talking about when he says that those who don’t repent will have the light they have already received taken away from them? In 2 Nephi 28:30 this principle is explained this way:
30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
Remember the plan of our salvation is all about eternal progression. When we are willing to continually accept more light and intelligence from God, which can happen because we repent and bring our lives into agreement with his commandments, he will continue to enlighten our minds and bless our lives. Our happiness will increase. But when we declare, through our disobedience, that we are no longer interested in progressing beyond where we are then we start to slide backwards.
It is actually God’s mercy that causes this backwards slide. If we know something and don’t live it then we are held accountable for it. When we reject the additional light and truth God has available to give us we gradually lose the ability to comprehend those truths we currently understand, so we can no longer be held accountable to the same degree for the truths we once understood clearly. We are, however, still held accountable for rejecting the truth. Disobedience is a slippery slope and comes with many troubles. For one thing when we are disobedient God cannot help us find joy in our lives, for we are choosing, through our disobedience, to live contrary to the laws of happiness. As the scriptures state, wickedness never was happiness (Alma 41:10).
How long does mercy last
This question has two answers. The principle and quality of mercy is eternal. God will always be merciful and kind. He will always love us and want only the best for us. But remember that he is the law giver and must exercise justice, always. Only the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us can offer us the mercy we need to repent and change, and that is only available for a short time.
In Alma 12:24 we are taught that we have only a finite amount of time in which to repent and demonstrate our desire to follow God and his path.
24 And we see that death comes upon mankind, yea, the death which has been spoken of by Amulek, which is the temporal death; nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead.
How much clearer can it be stated? We are in a probationary state, a time to prepare to meet God. We are in mortality for the soul purpose to prepare for that “endless state” which all of us will experience after the resurrection of the dead.
It is here that we hit a fuzzy area where we don’t have all the doctrine we need to fully understand the relationship between mortality and the time between mortality and the resurrection. We know that some repenting can take place after our death in mortality, but according to Joseph Smith it will be a thousand times more difficult to repent without our body. Once we receive a body, the relationship between the mortal body and the spirit becomes so entwined that once we “shuffle off this mortal coil” making changes to our soul is considerably more difficult to achieve. I believe that is why the prophets focus so intently on making sure we make our choices for the better while we are still here on earth. It makes things infinitely simpler once we die.
Yes, God’s mercy never ends. His mercy is as much a part of him as his love that defines the kind of person he is. But the mercy that is offered to us in the form of a chance to repent and improve – that is temporary. We should not take this precious opportunity for granted, for once this offer to repent and to change passes, it will never come again. Ever.
Our Savior says over and over again in the scriptures that for all the punishments that have to be meted out to mankind, “his arm is stretched out still.” This means that as long as we are here in mortality Christ’s mercy is extended to all. He never stops inviting us to come to him and be healed of our spiritual infirmities. But make no mistake, this is a limited time offer that comes with an expiration date. Truly do the prophets state that “… this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” (Alma 34:32)