Mercy is not really a word used in modern language – except maybe in the US South as an exclamation, “Have mercy!” It is not a concept we bandy about in conversation, although I imagine most people generally know that it is similar to the legal idea of clemency – getting off or getting a lighter sentence when you deserve punishment.
In the Bible, God is described many times as merciful – not giving us what our sins deserve.1. In Luke 6:32, 35-36 God also tells us to be merciful.
If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who love them! … No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High God. For He is good to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.
This is a very difficult command to obey. We naturally want justice for others and mercy for ourselves. We want second chances but if someone hurts us they should pay!
I have been learning something of showing mercy to others in a somewhat unusual way – through raising teenagers. Parents among you will know that teens can be a special grade of ungrateful, dismissive, unkind, insulting and thoughtless.
In my dealings with my teens over the last few years I have tried to enforce my will with punishments and loss of privileges, I have screamed and shouted, I have threatened to throw them out, I have wanted to shut down my heart and stop loving them because it is too hard and it hurts too much. I have wished them dead, I have been convinced I’m the wrong person to parent them, I have wept out of frustration and fear at where their choices will lead.
And, as a Christian, I have prayed and prayed. And I have felt God telling me to lay down my life, to turn the other cheek, to forgive and keep forgiving, to do good without expecting anything in return, to love them regardless of how they treat me and to keep giving and giving and giving – emotionally, financially, practically. It has been excruciatingly hard and very counter to every self-preservation instinct I have.
“What about spoiling them? What about children honour your parents?” Except, they are no longer children, they are a young adults and my dealings with them have to adjust.
And mercy is what God shows us. He is maligned and blasphemed and ignored by most people every day, and yet He still gives us rain and seasons and sunsets and every heartbeat and breath we enjoy. Like my teens, we make grossly unfair accusations against Him (You don’t care about me at all, you never…, you always …); we despise His presence (Just f_ off and leave me alone!); and we are completely ungrateful for all He does for us, taking it as our due. And like my teens, we assume that we know so much better than God does what will make us happy or how our lives should run.
I get so very hurt by the things my kids do and say, but I can’t really control it. God could though. He could wipe us all out in a blink. He could end our rebellion, He could make us conform to His will and worship Him.
But He doesn’t. Why? Why does the God of the universe let us insignificant clay people hurt him? Why does an all-powerful God put up with our dismissive, insulting treatment? Because He loves us and He wants a relationship with us, and love can’t be forced. Love has to be a choice.
I can’t make my children love and respect me. I can only show them love and respect and hope they choose to repay it. Similarly, God surrounds us with His beautiful creation and His goodness every day. He chooses, for the moment, to overlook our rebellion, although if we got what we deserved we’d be blotted out in a heartbeat. He is merciful because He loves us and, the Bible says, His goodness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
I am doing a very mediocre job of showing unconditional love to my teenagers, but God’s love and goodness is unfailing, long-suffering and complete.
If my child chooses in the end to walk away, leave home and reject all the goodness I have shown them. If they despise my advice and live as have I warned them is dangerous, there is ultimately nothing I can do. I have to respect their choice, since chaining them up at home is not love! In the same way, God loves and forgives and gives us time to choose Him, but if we ultimately choose to do things our own way, He doesn’t force us.
Hell will not be a punishment He enforces, but a choice we will have made.
- However, He is also just. Wrongdoing has to be punished, and God balances these two things by taking our punishment on Himself in the form of Jesus on the cross – punishing the sin but letting the guilty go free (if we ask).