Jesus was touting mercy long before Shakespeare.

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, “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power” (2), 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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Jesus loves me, even when I look like a dizzy octopus

On most mornings, I rise and shine (or rise and whine) and make my way to the living room to sweat it out to a workout video.  I like this kind of exercise: a full body workout that gets my heart pumping and evokes memories of my mother’s Richard Simmons videos.  I try not to repeat the same workout too often to work different muscle groups for different lengths of time and intensity but mostly to avoid boredom.  If I follow the same exercise day after day, the routine becomes just that: routine.  My brain switches to auto-pilot, my body goes through the motions with minimal effort, and I can lose track of which moves I’ve already done.  This is not good.

A new workout video is a good remedy to break up the routine, but on the first few days with the new video, well…I’m glad no one is watching me.  I try to follow the perky instructors as well as I can, but I’m afraid I look like a dizzy octopus with a dumbbell gripped in each tentacle.  But even though I might feel a little clumsy and look a little silly, I know the change is good for me.  My muscles feel strengthened in new ways, and I definitely feel more awake than after  “going through the motions” with an old workout.  After a few more times working out with the new video, I know the moves better and I can perform them with more confidence.

How I view my physical health can also be reflected in how I approach my spiritual health.  Am I content to follow a boring routine that fails to challenge me?  Attending church, praying throughout the day, and reading Scripture can all bring nourishment to a hungry soul.  But if the attendance, prayers, and readings feel obligatory, if they fail to stimulate the mind and touch the heart, what good are they?  They are no longer ways to deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ or to gain wisdom.  They are only characteristics of a lukewarm Christian which God detests (Revelation 3:16).  Baby Christians (that’s “Christianese” for a new believer) just crawling or toddling towards the doors of a church for the first time should be encouraged in all they do to learn more about God, no matter how seemingly small the steps.  But mature Christians should crave what the author of Hebrews referred to as “solid food”: training and teaching that leads to distinguishing good from evil (Hebrews 5:13-14).  Mature Christians should be hiking up mountains while baby Christians are learning to tie their bootlaces.

Wonderfully, growing as a Christian is easy to do – all it takes is effort.  God smiles on all His children when they glorify Him, whether they teach a Sunday School class, bring a meal to a needy family, fix a stranger’s flat tire, mentor a child, or build an orphanage.  Jesus’ life was not defined by record-breaking attendance at the Temple or showy prayers.  He loved the unlovable (John 4:1-42), touched the untouchable (Matthew 8:1-4), and forgave the unforgivable (Luke 23:34).  While it might seem like a “sacrifice” of time and effort to get the whole family dressed in their best and arrive at church right at 9:00 every Sunday morning, or praying the same prayer before dinner every night, it is all meaningless to God if the bodies that go to church and pray before meals do not genuinely show God’s love at other times.  For God desires mercy and acknowledgement more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

So how will you challenge and strengthen yourself as you walk with God?  Personally, I look for ways to keep my Sunday School class fresh and fun so the kids want to come rather than feeling forced to come.  My husband and I are spearheading an initiative at our church focused on service that will honor God while helping people in our community.  And I’m following a one-year plan to read through the new Bible my husband gave me when we were married last year.  (“Ugh, I have to underline all my favorite verses again because I got a new Bible.” #FirstWorldChristianProblems)  I hope you do not think I’m bragging, reader, or suggesting you have to do these exact same things to grow.  These are just ways that fit well with my spiritual gifts, and how you choose to grow may look completely different than my ways.  What matters is that Christians honor God with their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths to the best of their abilities.  Just as an athlete trains to jump higher, run farther, swim faster, or dive deeper, we should aim to pray more fervently, work more cheerfully, give more generously, suffer more patiently, and live more faithfully.  We might look like dizzy octopuses when we start, but God will still be smiling.

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