The quality of mercy

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

“Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great. But do not let me fall into the hand of man.’” (2 Samuel 24:14)

Given the choice of punishments for his sin of counting the fighting men, a grieving King David revealed something about the way the world deals with sin: it’s merciless.

You need look no further than today’s headlines, especially the stories based on some egregious tweet. One misstep, one slip of the tongue, and the knives are out. Forget trying to provide context or clarification or pleading for the opportunity to restate your case.

This is what happens when righteousness–and not just the self-righteousness as ubiquitous in the world as pollen on a breezy spring day—is divorced from mercy.

Yet the mercy of God is on display in copious quantities every day. It’s a governing principle of life. And because we have been taught to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s meant to be a governing principle of our lives.

When some “sinner” appears to reap what he has sown, we might wonder what our obligation is to someone who is so morally compromised and apparently suffering for it.

But we don’t weigh the love of God against the sin of man, calibrating our response like a nurse might adjust an I.V. drip on a bed-ridden patient.

We can scrap the moral calculus. We’re commanded, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Mercy is the divine counterpart to the world’s tolerance, but infinitely superior. In its social expression, it may superficially resemble the live-and-let-live ethos of tolerance, but at its core it’s as fundamentally different as diamond and glass. Mercy suspends judgment on sin but does not compromise its definition of it.

In his mercy, Jesus started to write on the ground to shift the attention of the teachers of the law and Pharisees away from the adulterous woman, who at this point was surely already consumed by shame. But when he told her that he, too, did not condemn her, his last words were, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (Jn 8:1-11).

But just to be clear, mercy is not merely a theological attribute we recognize and admire in God. It’s not just knowing it that matters, as vital as that knowledge may be.

Jonah knew that God was merciful—and it made him angry. “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish [probably Spain].

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jon 4:1-3).

You may know that God is merciful, but the command is be merciful. Jonah was more concerned about a vine that shaded him from the blazing sun than the divine mercy that shielded Nineveh from the wrath of God.

And yet God and Jonah shared a common standard of righteousness: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jon 1:2). It’s just that Jonah would have been satisfied if smoldering embers were all that was left of “the great city.”

While we know that God is righteous and just, it is God’s mercy that subjects us as believers to occasional, temporary suffering that is part of the cost of being a minister of that mercy.

This happens because it must have time to work. For as long as the Lord is offering the opportunity to another to respond and repent, we may find ourselves feeling the acute pain of being wronged while judgment is suspended.

In fact, it’s this experience that enables us to “consider the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom 12:22) more clearly. While grace is free to the recipient, it was infinitely costly to the Redeemer who dispenses it.

The severity of God’s judgment stems not just from the offense, but the cost of the mercy in the price his son paid.

It wasn’t until I began to share in the sufferings of Christ—mind you, in a minuscule way compared to his ultimate sacrifice—that I also began to comprehend that while “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 1:13), only judgment will suffice to answer for a rejected mercy.

This explains the anger of the master confronting the servant who buried the talent in the parable (Mt 25:14-30). A talent was a unit of weight and currency; a single talent was the equivalent of a laborer’s wages for 20 years.

But where did that single talent come from? From the master’s “riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience;” the servant was guilty of “not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towards repentance” (Rom 2:4). And so the miserable end (Mt 25:28-30).

Too wonderful to wrap your head around it, his mercy is also too costly to ignore.

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