Rethinking Mercy and its Parameters
Sometimes when I think about the word “mercy,” I see two gladiators battling it out in the Roman coliseum. The battle is fierce, but eventually one stumbles and the other moves in for the kill. The vanquished finds himself on his back with the sword of the victor about to plunge into his throat. Both men look up to the stands to see what the Emperor will decide: thumbs up and life, or thumbs down and death.
The loser hopes to receive the mercy of the Emperor so that his life will be spared. The winner doesn’t really care. Winners seldom do.
And that brings me to the point of the article: none of us likes to be placed in a position from which we must beg for mercy. We do not like to say, “I am at your mercy.” It is seen as a sign of weakness, and we don’t like to be seen as weak. We’d much rather be the winner! Striving, achieving, in control, full of power, prestige, and position. We work hard to see that everything in life goes well, and if we happen to fail at something, we do everything we can to cover it up, make light of it, work around it, and forget about it as soon as possible.
Not surprisingly Jesus had a few words to say about this, and as was his style, a lot of what He said went against the wisdom of His day, as well as the wisdom of ours.
Sitting on the side of a hill and speaking to a large crowd, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt. 5:7)
Blessed for giving and receiving mercy? That’s totally foreign to our society. We think the blessing is in winning, not being in a position to need mercy, but Jesus says the blessing is in being merciful and that blessing comes about in being shown mercy.
Do we really think we need it?
After all, we value the ones who don’t screw up, who don’t fall short, who are “winning” at the game of life. It’s hard to show mercy when revenge is sweet and you value vengeance. When we’re so proud of being in the right, it’s hard to show mercy to those who do wrong.
Pride. Ego. Self-centeredness. These are the barriers to our being merciful as well as the barriers to our receiving mercy, whether from others or from God.
Could it be true that we’ve got it totally wrong? That the true blessing isn’t in winning or being right but in being merciful and receiving mercy?
JESUS KEPT STRETCHING THE LIMITS OF MERCY
Let’s turn our attention to some of the examples of mercy that Jesus talked about.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matt. 6:38-42)
The concept of “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” was well known to those listening to Jesus. Today we’d call it “tit for tat” or “getting even.” But Jesus’ words stretch us to not only refrain from returning injury “in kind” but instead to radically change the way we respond, in this case by turning the other cheek.
Turn the other cheek? Why, I’d rather ball up my fist and take a swing! My pride and ego immediately rise up, and all I want to do is to defend myself and get even. While that might give me some sense of satisfaction (and perhaps a black eye!), Jesus says that the real blessing comes by doing exactly the opposite. The other examples in that passage are like that, too: they all ask for us to be merciful in radical ways.
No one ever said following Jesus would be easy!
Changing the way we respond to others, to be less vengeful and more merciful, isn’t going to happen overnight. Imagine being in the situation that Jesus describes. You’ve been slapped in the face. Anger wells up quickly inside of you. You brace yourself and prepare to strike back, but then you remember Jesus’ words and with great effort decide not to do so. Perhaps you’ll be hit again, perhaps not. But rather than retaliating, you decide to just take it.
We may not encounter physical slaps all that often, but we frequently face mental slaps – harsh words, angry words, demeaning actions, mocking gestures. You name it. Why are these so hard to let go of? Why the need to defend ourselves? And most importantly, why did Jesus counsel against it?
The need to defend ourselves comes from our pride. “How dare they say that?” you think. The reason Jesus told us to let it go was to help rid us of our pride, and by reducing our pride by being more merciful than we normally would, we also reduce our pride that inhibits us from receiving the mercy of others. More about that in a moment.
Here’s another example of Jesus stretching the limits of mercy.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45a)
About 30 years ago I was the defendant in a business lawsuit that dragged on for nearly a year. A pastor I talked with counseled me to begin praying for the other party. And he meant praying for them, not just pretending I was praying for them when I was really praying for myself. You know how that goes, “Oh, God, please show them the error of their ways so that this lawsuit can be reconciled quickly.” Now that’s a very valid prayer to pray – and I prayed it often – but Jesus would not have said I was praying “for those who persecute” me.
So with great difficulty I began to pray for the other party, quite simply and briefly at first. Grudgingly, even. It was an act of sheer obedience. But I did it. And you know what? Over time the length of those prayers increased, and my petitions turned more to genuinely praying for them instead of just pretending to do so. Jesus stretched my concept of mercy as I did so, and because of that, I was blessed as He said I would be.
I began this article by quoting Jesus as saying that the merciful will be blessed by being shown mercy. Let’s not read this as God somehow “keeping score” so that we become performance oriented and think we have a “tit for tat” God. God is ready, willing, and able to give each of us undeserved love and mercy, and He has plenty to give. But if we’re not feeling His mercy, then the disconnect isn’t in God’s giving it but in our receiving it.
We block God’s mercy, I think, by acting towards God like we would naturally act towards those around us. When we close up to others, we also close up to God. But we open up to God’s mercy as we learn to open up to others by being merciful towards them. Our acts of mercy diminish our pride, ego, need to be right, need to get even, need to judge, and our general hardness of heart. These are the very things that close us up to God, and as they diminish in our lives, we become more fully open to Him and to His mercy.
It has been said that humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us. We get better at that as we give up our need for control and our need to “look good” before Him. Being merciful to others helps us give up those things.
Likewise, it is said that dependence is seeing God as He really is. Our dependence on Him is more fully felt when we get a glimpse of how others may depend on us to shown them mercy.
This was brought home to me in a forceful way a few weeks ago when someone told me, “I am at your mercy.” Hearing that left me unsettled at first, because I was viewing mercy in the same negative way that most of our society does. I thought of it as a weakness, when in fact it was a statement of incredible strength and courage.
Could I take that same strength and courage to God as I opened my own heart further towards Him? Could I overcome thinking that my admitting and accepting God’s mercy towards me was not a statement of weakness but one of dependency, that is, more fully seeing God as He really is?
GOD HAS MERCY IN EXTRAVAGANT MEASURE
Let me end by reminding us all that God’s mercy for us is beyond our comprehension. His mercies are from the beginning of time (Ps. 25:6), renewed every morning (Lam 3:23), rich (Eph. 2:4), saving (Tit. 3:5), and triumphant over justice (James 2:13).
Our need for His mercy is just as extravagant, for we fall short of the glory He intended for us (Rom 3:23), and the gap between where we are and where He wants us to be can only be spanned by His initiative, and He took the initiative by sending Jesus to us to announce, inaugurate, and demonstrate the way we were created to live, which Jesus called living in the kingdom of God. And as the ultimate expression of His love and mercy towards us, Jesus went willingly to the cross on our behalf, endured the shame and suffering, died on our behalf, and was resurrected three days later as the source of our ultimate hope!
Why don’t we take some time this week to go before God in prayer, specifically asking for and yielding ourselves to His mercy. His mercy never fails. It’s all around us, waiting for us to open up enough to receive it. You’ll be giving up some of those “deadly needs” I wrote about earlier. You’ll be giving up some pride, ego, and sense of control. But true blessing doesn’t come from those, remember?
In closing, let me offer a prayer of forgiveness and mercy. If you’ve attended a liturgical church, you may be familiar with the prayer and prayed it with the rest of the congregation. Pray it as written, or use it as a guide to compose a more personal prayer of your own.
Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
in your compassion forgive us our sins,
known and unknown,
things done and left undone;
and so uphold us by your Spirit
that we may live and serve you in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For those having difficulty forgiving or showing mercy to someone else, let me rewrite the prayer, keeping the same outline but changing some of the words.
[Name], I choose to forgive you, all feelings aside;
I feel compassion for you and your situation and forgive you whatever wrong you’ve done to me, things I know about; things I don’t know about,
things you’ve done and things you may have neglected to do;
I look to God to uphold us both by His Spirit
that we may continue our relationship anew,
and thereby give honor and glory to His Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Remember, God’s mercy towards us (the first prayer) cannot be fully experienced unless it flows through us to others (the second prayer).
If you would like to continue the conversation, especially if you’ve prayed either or both of these prayers, drop us an email at SaltRadioMinistries@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you.