I can remember an old gospel preacher saying, “Mercy is free, but it ain’t cheap.”

Like so many of the old-timers, he understood God’s unlimited, unmerited and unconditional mercy, but he also understood that it comes at a price.

The Catholic Church stipulates that an image of the crucified Lord is to be the predominant image near the altar of a church. This is to remind us that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and that the crucified Lord is the one who pays the price of mercy.

The mystery of the cross is the mystery of mercy. Deep within the human heart is a dark twist that inclines us to blame others for what is wrong. Ever since Cain killed his brother Abel, the tendency to shift the blame and then destroy the blameless one has been acted out in human history.

This dark strain in our nature causes us to not only  shift the blame to others, but to judge others and condemn them. “They are the problem,” we often convince ourselves, “and if they are the problem, then they must be destroyed.”

The result of this urge to rush to judgment and project our guilt and blame on another is seen on the cross. There, Jesus accepts the blame with open arms and bears the violence that always accompanies the shifting of guilt. In this one action, he accepts the blame although he is blameless, and this act of mercy opens the doors of mercy for the whole world.

From that point until the end of time, we can be free of the “blame game” because he takes the blame and the judgment on himself. This action releases a dynamic of mercy into the world, so that, until the end of time, God’s great mercy is free, but it is not cheap.

The expense of mercy is seen not only in Christ’s merciful action, but also in our acceptance of mercy. If mercy from Jesus is free but not cheap, so we must receive mercy freely but not cheaply.

Cheap mercy is that which is accepted thoughtlessly or without depth. Those who think mercy is simply being “let off the hook” for what they’ve done wrong have not yet begun to understand the depth and cost of mercy. Those who think mercy means there is no judgment, and they may do what they like, are paying the price with a counterfeit form of mercy. If we go to the Lord for mercy but are not truly sorry for what we’ve done wrong, and have no real intention of changing our ways, then we are asking for cheap mercy, not deep mercy.

For us to really know and understand the depth and price of Christ’s mercy, we must ask for the gift of contrition. The Catechism defines contrition as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”

At first, we are sorry for our sins imperfectly. We might be sorry, for example, because we are scared of getting caught, we fear hell or simply because we feel guilty. It could be we are ashamed of what we have done because it is sordid and beneath us. The feelings of fear, guilt and shame alone are not enough to take us to the depths of God’s mercy. The Catechism calls this “imperfect contrition.” It is a gift of God, but it needs to lead to sacramental confession, and our contrition needs to move to a more profound and perfect level.

Perfect contrition “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else,” and we are sorry for our sin because it separates us from the love of God. When we are perfectly penitent, we realize at once the seriousness of our sin and why it is serious. The sin is not serious simply because someone said it was wrong or because we might get caught, be shamed or punished.

Instead, we realize, with sudden, blinding clarity, that the sin is wrong because God loves us and calls us into a bond of eternal love and mercy and that our sin has drawn us away from that beautiful and wonderful state of grace. This is why perfect contrition is linked with the desire and intention to go to confession as soon as possible. We want to get to confession and experience the depth of God’s mercy — not because we were told to, and not out of fear, but because we long to know once more the embrace of the merciful Father.

Perfect contrition is a gift, and Lent is the time to seek that gift. The disciplines and devotions of Lent are the means by which we deepen our contrition and move from fear, guilt and shame into that more profound understanding of the nature of sin and the true nature of mercy.

From the moment the Lenten ashes are imposed to the radiant joy of the Easter vigil, Lent is the quest to discover the deep mercy that comes with perfect contrition.

The spiritual fathers of the Eastern Church teach that the soul makes its fastest progress to God at the moment that perfect contrition is reached. When our whole being gasps out in longing for God’s mercy, we take a quantum leap forward in the spiritual life.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, this point is reached when he is in the mud of the pigpen, and he has the sudden realization of his condition and his father’s patient, unconditional love. The King James version of the Bible says at that point the son “comes to himself”; and in that instant, he knows at the root of his being the deep mercy of the father.

In this Year of Mercy, it is all too easy for us, in our shallow and sentimental world, to accept God’s gift of mercy in a casual or lighthearted way. A good Lent involves a realization that mercy is a serious business, and although the Church offers God’s mercy freely, its true worth is only realized as we move, by God’s gift, into the depths of perfect contrition.

As we do, we realize at the foundation of our souls the simple words of the preacher: that God’s great mercy is free, but it ain’t cheap.

Register blogger Father Dwight Longenecker is

a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.