Recently, I took part in a quiz meant to reveal a how a person is spiritually gifted. The possible categories were “Prophecy/Perception, Service, Teaching, Exhortation/Encouragement, Giving, Leadership/Administration, and Mercy/Compassion.” I scored highest for Service and Teaching, with which I completely agreed and of which – sad to admit – I was even a little proud. (Darn right, I’m good at service and teaching. I deserve more kudos!) And I scored least in…Mercy/Compassion. This was not a complete surprise. I know I don’t perceive other people’s emotional needs very well, I would make a terrible nurse, and I’m not going to cry with someone whose goldfish passed away from old age. But was a roll of the eyes, a rueful shrug of the shoulders, or a dismissive “Well, mercy’s just not my thing,” the correct response to this revelation? No.
In today’s work-centered, self-reliant, self-seeking, “Suck it up, buttercup” world, mercy is not endorsed. It might even be seen as a weakness, as Count Adhemar did in A Knight’s Tale (1). After all, doesn’t our culture view mercy as allowance for bad or lazy behavior? But mercy, “ is what all of us truly and deeply desire. We want a friend to loan us a little money, even if we forgot to pay her back for a previous loan. We want a reassuring hug in the middle of the night when we are scared. We want a sympathetic ear when we feel overwhelmed by a diagnosis. But herein lies the problem: while we all desire mercy, many of us are loath to grant it. “No, you cannot borrow five dollars; you didn’t pay me back the last time!” “No, you cannot wake me up just because you had a bad dream!” “No, I don’t have time to hear about your disgusting medical problems!”
In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, mercy is described as being “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1.175-176). The orator then describes mercy as an attribute that – coming from a king – is more impressive than his crown or scepter (4.1.178-182). When a king can command anyone at anytime to be decapitated merely for looking at him the wrong way, forgiveness for a weighty crime is newsworthy for the public and unfathomable for the criminal. But for most of us, our daily lives are not touched by the mercy – or lack of mercy – from kings. We are concerned with how our neighbors treat us and how we treat our neighbors.
When Jesus preached the famous Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Later on, Jesus illustrated this statement with the parable of the unmerciful servant. In this story, a king forgives one of his servants of an enormous debt after the servant begs the king not to send him and his family to debtor’s prison. Relieved, the man goes home and – immediately forgetting the mercy shown him – demands a man repay him a meager loan. Unable to pay back the amount, the servant mistreats the man who owes him. When the king hears what his servant has done, he demands the man be imprisoned until the previously forgiven debt can be repaid. Now, consider this: the servant was not initially forgiven the loan because he ran an errand for the king, served the king faithfully or years, or even saved the king’s life. All he did was fall on his knees and sob like a baby, begging not to receive the punishment that was due him. And the king showed mercy: he gained nothing for his kindness and expected nothing in return.
The king in the parable had power to imprison or even kill the servant if he wished, just as God has power to do with us as He wishes. As humans, we are by nature sinners, we fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and for this we deserve death (Romans 6:23). But while God’s sovereignty should make us tremble in fear, his mercy should make us weep in gratitude. God gave His one and only Son to die the death we deserved out of His mercy, not for anything we did or could ever do (Titus 3:4-7). Just as Shakespeare observed of earthly kings, God’s mercy was more remarkable than any show of His power.
So I should not be complacent with my “natural” lack of mercy. As a Christ-follower, I should be imitating Him more and more. Like the unmerciful servant, I have been forgiven a great and terrible debt. Why should I not show such mercy to my neighbors? One way I’ve worked on being more merciful is to contemplate Proverbs 12:16: “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult”. When I pause and think, Is this really something to get worked up about? I can I take ten seconds and help this person? Can I respond to this in a more gentle tone?, I can conjure up a more merciful spirit. While I am not as gifted in mercy as I am in other areas, I can focus on growing this area of my spiritual life. But don’t expect me to cry over goldfish anytime soon.
1. ChippyChopper. “Showing Mercy.” Online video clip. YouTube. 13 October 2009. Web. 12 March 2017.
2. “mercy”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 12 Mar. 2017. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mercy>.
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