“David said to God, ’I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Samuel 24:14)
“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
An honest answer to the question in the title, or a disgusted one, or an indignant one, may well be, Plenty. So, what next ? [cue The Clash: “Should I Stay, or Should I Go?”]
The answer to that question, based on the amount of transfer growth—leaving one church to find a better one—appears to be pretty subjective in the United States. There is such an abundance of choices that it’s like a trip to the buffet to create that perfect combination of ingredients.
What many persons want is a checklist of rules or spiritual principles to score a church or ministry. Unfortunately, it’s easy to take this and then veer into legalism as rigid and particular as the Pharisaical rules for the Sabbath, such as the time Jesus’ disciples were criticized for plucking and eating heads of grain, which the Pharisees judged as work and therefore wrong (Mt 12:1-8).
But I think it’s necessary to highlight something more basic and fundamental, if I might use that term without its negative connotations.
In the tabernacle constructed in the wilderness was the Ark of the Covenant, the place where God would dwell among his people. The lid of the Ark (it was a box) was gold and two angels with outstretched wings sat facing each other. The space between them was the mercy seat.
“There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat . . . I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex 25:22).
This of course precedes the new covenant and its forms of worship, because now his tabernacle is among men and the sacrifices have been superseded by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. But you still have a pretty good picture of what it means to meet with God: the what, the where, being in his precious presence symbolized by the gold.
But what about sound doctrine, keeping oneself pure, rejecting what has been corrupted by man’s tampering, setting aside “improvements” upon God’s design for his church and the layers of tradition that actually obscure the basic elements of the faith ?
Nobody—and certainly not me—is saying these things are trivial, outdated or superfluous to the worship and service of God.
But because no one of us–now or 30 centuries ago when the people of God were just a dozen tribes on the littoral of the Mediterranean–can stand before God apart from it, mercy must be the crowning virtue of all.
And that gives people fits. It upset the Pharisees to see the disciples plucking grain. It upset Jonah so much he cared more about a withered vine than Nineveh, as the Lord pointed out, “in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (!) (Jon 4:10).
Jonah knew the Lord was merciful. In fact, he admitted that knowledge was what made him flee in the opposite direction. He knew he needed it to be delivered from the great fish, and when he was he delivered, he knew it was right to pray with “a voice of thanksgiving” for God’s mercy (Jon 2:1-9). What he couldn’t stomach was extending it to someone or something he didn’t like.
PR flacks and authoritarian regimes airbrush their subjects’ worst features right out of the picture. Strangely enough, God embedded his people’s worst failures in the bestselling, most widely disseminated book in history. From Argentina to Canada, London to Beijing, or Pretoria to Cairo, you can read about the ugly, seamy side of the history of the people of God as well as the good.
Consider David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1)? How vile was his plot to kill Bathsheba’s husband by leaving him exposed in battle (2 Sam 11:6-17)? It’s all in there.
But in obedience to today’s “cancel culture,” shouldn’t we excise every word by or about him since he is obviously unworthy of praise or honor? I wouldn’t advise it. When you remove mercy from history, all of man’s glory disintegrates like a toppled statue.
Martin Luther was a courageous, determined man who stood his ground at a pivotal moment in world history. He could also be a vicious anti-Semite. To read some of his diatribes you’d wonder if this was the same man who re-discovered the grace of God in the gospel.
Other reformers in the 16th century tied stones to Anabaptist believers and shoved them into rivers to drown, taunting them about their “second baptism” as they died. This was part of the Reformation, too, but nobody wants to think they were capable of that. (Anabaptist means “one baptized again,” if you were unfamiliar with name’s origin.)
In Hitler’s Germany it was the feeble-minded, the weak, and the undesirables that had to be exterminated to build the glorious 1000-year Reich. In the kingdom God builds, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isa 42:3).
How pathetic, says the world, enamored of wealth, strength and success. How glorious, say those who have been bruised like that but found life.
The world snuffs out wicks and mows down bruised reeds routinely, without giving it a second thought. But given the opportunity, mercy fans embers back into flame and gently makes the bent reed upright again.
What’s missing in today’s “cancel culture” is something that should gleam in his church like the golden Ark: his mercy.
It’s why David, given the choice of falling into God’s hand or man’s, chose God–because “his mercy is great.” Among men, not so great. Just look around you.