For the past eleven years I have been in positions that entail enforcing rules and administering discipline for young people. There have been many times when I have wrestled with making the right decision in situations when disciplinary consequences were necessary, hoping and praying that I would make the right decision. Balancing justice and mercy is not easy to do. For some reason, though, a recent situation prompted me to wrestle with this matter even more than I have in the past, or at least more than I have in a long time. I probably spent the better part of three days mulling over how to handle a situation, praying for guidance and wisdom. Here’s the conclusion I reached after all that mulling: mercy is messy.
It is easy to make a decision to impose consequences. When in an institutional setting, there are almost always guidelines in place that inform discipline. Nothing could be easier than finding the offense and following your finger across the chart to the predetermined penalty. That requires no thinking at all, though; a computer or a robot could be programmed to do that. People are more complicated than that, though. And when you are enforcing discipline in a ministry that claims to be following Christ, it gets exponentially more complicated. God does not use a cookie cutter approach to discipline. He does not kick us out of His family when we blow it. He does not revoke our salvation. He does not eliminate the consequences of our actions, either, of course. There are often very real, even very painful, consequences for sin. Dallas Willard wrote, “If you choose to step off the roof, you cannot then choose not to hit the ground.” His point was that our actions and choices all have consequences, and we cannot opt to avoid the consequences after we have made our choice. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I do not want anything I am saying here to suggest that I think we should eliminate consequences. What I am saying, though, is that meaningful, effective, God-honoring consequences do not come in neat, clean packages.
Laura Coulter has written this: “I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.” This is the rub, actually. When I stop and reflect on all of the mercy God has shown me, I am left wondering how in the world I could not show mercy to someone else. If being a Christian means being like Christ, showing mercy has to be an essential part of how I live my life. The reality, though, is it isn’t. I don’t really like mercy most of the time. When I have been offended or wronged or, let’s face it, even just irritated, I want justice. I want revenge. I want punishment inflicted and pain felt. I want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. I want to see fire fall from heaven and the offending party obliterated, blown into a billion tiny particles scattered across the universe. I want the offending party to get exactly what’s coming to him.
When I calm down and think about what I am really saying, however, I realize exactly how much like Jonah that sounds. Jonah got ticked off at God because He decided to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted no part of mercy. He wanted to see cosmic destruction, up close and personal, from a front row seat on a hill overlooking town, enjoying the shade of a lovely plant that God provided for him. When God took away the plant and extended mercy on the Ninevites Jonah was so incensed he wanted to die. How many times have I read Jonah’s story and used him as a great example of the wrong kind of heart, the wrong kind of attitude? It’s not so fun when I look into the mirror of God’s Word and see Jonah staring back at me, though.
Being merciful means taking a huge risk. Multiple risks simultaneously, in fact. It means risking the comments that will come from others who see you as weak for not giving someone what they deserve. It means risking the behavior that others may engage in when they saw someone else “get away with it,” whatever “it” may have been. It means risking the possibility of having that mercy thrown back in your face by the very one to whom it was extended when, rather than seizing the opportunity to change his life, he decides instead to capitalize on the opportunity to do whatever he wants yet again. It means taking the risk of having to look back later and wonder if all of the trouble, headache and heartache that comes from the possibilities just enumerated could have been avoided by just saying “see ya” the first time someone messed up.
I have no idea if the decision I made in the instance that I alluded to at the start of this post will turn out well or not. It is too early to know for sure. I do know, though, that I have–for now anyway–peace about that decision. When I ponder why I have that peace I am left with a simple conclusion: if doing my best to treat someone the way God would treat them, I cannot be doing the wrong thing, even if it turns out to be a disaster. Phillip Holmes wrote recently on the grace of God, describing it like this:
God is neither motivated by his own sinfulness nor enabled by his ignorance. He is a holy and righteous God, completely void of sin and full of goodness and love. He’s never made a mistake and can do anything but fail. He is perfect in all his ways. If he were a doctor, he’d never lose a patient. If he were a lawyer, he’d never lose a case. There is no moral compass that could measure how upright and blameless he is.
Nevertheless, when we, his sinful and rebellious prodigal children, spit in his face, wallow in our sin, and grieve his Spirit, he calls us to repentance with open and loving arms saying, “Come home, child.”
He’s not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.
I have to agree. God’s love and grace baffle me, too. So does His mercy. God gives me far more than I deserve, and, in His sovereignty, does not give me what I do deserve. I am not God. I am not perfect, I am not all-knowing and I surely make mistakes. I know all of that quite well. Here’s what else I know, though: If taking the opportunity to extend mercy to someone has even the slimmest chance of leading them to the Lord, or closer to the Lord, it’s worth it. Every time. All of the mess, the risk and the headache is worth it. I do not spend much time reading Rick Warren and I rarely quote him, but he got it right with his blog post on May 21, 2014 entitled “Don’t Be Reluctant to Show Mercy.” “The mercy God shows to us is the motivation for us to show mercy to others,” Warren wrote. That is certainly true, because in and of myself, there is no motivation for mercy. In and of myself I am just like Jonah. In and of myself I am like James and John in Luke 9–I want to call down fire from heaven. But I don’t really want to be like I am in and of myself. I want to be like Christ.
In a sermon entitled “Blessed Are the Merciful,” John Piper said the following about mercy:
[M]ercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.
The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.
The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.
That last sentence is a doozy, isn’t it? How transformational it is to understand that everything in our lives is “owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God”!
Importantly, Piper also points out that knowing when and how to show mercy is not easy. Note what he has to say…
If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.
The beatitude says, “Blessed are the merciful,” not, “Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances.” We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.
That’s an insightful reminder to end with, I think. It seems contradictory, but sometimes mercy does require the effective administration of swift justice. Guess where that leaves me, though? Exactly where I started–with the point that knowing what to do and when is difficult. Mind-taxing, heart-wrenching, time-consuming and just plain hard. Like I said…mercy is messy.