The Quality of Mercy

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion. Blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51: 1-2)

The concept of mercy has been on my mind lately. I think the idea of a Merciful God is one that we toss around a lot lately, but I’m not sure mercy is something we understand. I mean to some degree, this is what Lent is all about. Throughout the Old Testament, God sets high standards and people continually (and continually today) break them. Therefore everyone deserves the punishment, and the punishment is death. But God wants us as much as we need him. So through Christ, He called an audible. This is where we see mercy; we deserve death, but God promises life.

But the quality of mercy in our society seems to be more of a notion than a practice. I’m not sure this is all bad. After all, our sense of justice comes from being created in God’s image. We wouldn’t want a world where crime went unpunished. We would be appalled if a young girl were kidnapped or abused or used unlawfully, and then the perpetrator was simply given a “get out of jail free card.” Think of the implications if at the Nuremburg trials, the perpetrators of the holocaust had been told, “No big deal, everyone makes mistakes.” We wouldn’t approve of, or even be able to handle such a society.

I think the best explanation of mercy comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In the famous trial scene of this play, the character Portia, gives an elaborate dissertation about mercy saying:

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It drops as the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesses him that gives and him that takes. It is mightiest in the mightiest. It makes the king better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power—an attribute to awe and majesty—wherein does sit the dread and fear of kings. But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself. And man does become like God when showing mercy over justice.”

Portia breaks down mercy as a trait of God himself. Her speech says that in showing mercy, we love like Christ commanded us to love. But she goes on to say:

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice we all must see salvation, we all do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”

Just as we pray for God to merciful onto us, this prayer should lead us to show mercy unto others. If we expect God to be merciful and loving unto us, shouldn’t we be merciful and loving as well? The psalmist even makes this case in the end of Psalm 51 saying: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.” (Psalm 51: 12-13)

But, for me at least, this hard. I think many people see mercy and justice as opposites. We tend to question mercy and fear that someone is getting off too easy. The reality is mercy is not throwing out the rule book, but rather finding the loophole. After all, Christ was the ultimate loophole. Having Jesus take on the punishment satisfied justice and allowed God to continue in relationship with his people.

And I think that is the key to mercy: relationships. When we approach events or decisions from the stand point of “someone’s right, someone’s wrong” “someone deserves a reward, someone must be punished” we not only deny mercy, but we quickly destroy relationships in pursuit of our own egos. But when maintaining a relationship is kept at the center of all decisions, showing mercy doesn’t seem so hard. When caring about each other is put before being right, mercy becomes a lot easier.

But, as I said before, this is hard. In my relationships with my family and my friends, “don’t get mad, get even” feels like a much more comfortable response than “forgive and forget.” Over the months, as I’ve prayed about this, I’ve come to realize, mercy is beyond me. Letting go is hard. But in the end, I need the relationships more than I need to be right. Showing mercy and forgiveness has no affect on anyone else, but it heals me. It allows me to move on and strengthen my relationship with that person.

This week, may you know that you are forgiven by a merciful God. May you know that God loves you and wants you as much as you need him. And may you find healing from any wounds in your life.


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