“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” – Matthew 5:7
There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be serving a life sentence in prison right now. There’s also no reason why I shouldn’t be suffering from some incurable disease. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be poor, destitute, and lonely.
Yet here I am.
What is it that has caused me to be where I am today? Married to a beautiful wife, father to two gorgeous daughters, pastor to a God-fearing congregation; I have friends all over the world, am in good health, and have adequate food, clothing, shelter, coffee, and books.
Why am I not worse off than I am? I know men, multiple men, who have lived their entire lives mostly free from any kind of scandal but are now serving or facing severe sentences in prison for proportionately severe lapses in judgment. There is a large part of me that wants to look at these men, because I love them so much, and just punch them square in the face. But that anger is soothed and subsided when I ask myself why I am not in their place. When I consider that I am only a single lapse of judgment away from the same kind of fate, my anger is shown as foolishness, and what I find is that mercy takes its place. The only thing keeping me from making complete shipwreck of my life is grace.
One thing that I have learned in both life and in pastoral ministry is that most major sins are preceded by a thousand small tragedies. Not all, but most. Some of these tragedies are seen and felt by the sinner, but some are unseen and unfelt. And it may take years to realize that those unseen and unfelt sins are a possible source for the major sin-tragedy. That affair may have been the result of several instances of neglect, from either one or both parties. That physical assault may have been the result of decades of pent-up anger from bullying, patronization, and belittling verbal assaults. The celebrity pastor who became more of a celebrity than a pastor may have been denied by those around him of the mercy of accountability, the sincerity of deep friendship, and the comfort of the Gospel. A thousand small tragedies can amount to a singular large catastrophe.
But likewise, grace has its formative impact on our lives as well. Speaking for myself, I’ve not had an affair on my wife (with my body, but certainly so with my mind), I’ve not assaulted anyone (with my hands, but certainly so with my words), and I’ve not succumbed to the allure of pursuing celebrity status (in my actions, but certainly so in my pride). But why? Why have I been spared these failures? I’ve not been spared the tragedies. And I’ve not been spared the sin in my own mind, heart, and body that could cause them. The only reason I’ve not completely destroyed my life and reputation is grace; grace that has kept me back from the ledge and even parachuted me down against my will whenever I’ve jumped. There’s not a single reason for me to boast in myself about where I am at in life.
It seems to me that any person’s particular circumstances at any given moment are the present culmination of a thousand instances of sin and grace, all intertwined together to lead that specific person to that specific place at that specific time for a specific purpose. What other forces in the world have the power to actually form a person other than sin and grace? Sin distorts us, grace restores us. And the current state of our lives is the result of the constant back and forth battle between these two influences upon us.
Which finally leads me to my point.
Showing mercy to another person who has sinned severely is a very human act that arises from a deep-seated sympathy and a knowing that, were it not for the grace of God, you’d be caught in the same depth of sin, if not deeper. To take stock of another person’s sinful actions and make a conscious effort to extend them mercy rather than demand retribution or justice or payment is an act that confers immense dignity upon the humanity of the other. Only humans are endowed with the power to make choices that reverberate into eternity. To be able to affect the course of one’s eternal future through their actions—that is the power of being human. And when we show another sinner mercy, we are acknowledging that their actions carry such dignity as to demand a payment for them. We are acknowledging that they are human beings who are completely responsible for what they’ve done, and that equal recompense is just and right, yet we are not exacting that payment from then precisely because we know that we are human too.
To truly understand this, flip the script that we’ve been writing and place yourself on the side longing to be shown mercy for your sin. When another says to you, “I know your actions deserve my anger and disappointment, but I’m choosing to forgive you and trust you, even if it hurts me,” isn’t that empowering? Doesn’t that lift a weight of sorrow and shame that would otherwise keep you locked in a state of regret? Mercy and grace may not nullify all of the effects of sin, but they preserve and strengthen the humanity of both the receiver and the giver. “I may have no one else to blame, but you and I were once the same.”* And it’s this common origin that causes us to remember that were it not for grace, our paths would have never diverged, and we’d be stuck in the same plight as the sinner: begging for mercy, longing to have our shared humanity acknowledged.
Blessed are those who acknowledge the humanity of others, for they shall become more aware of their own humanity. Blessed are the merciful for they shall become more alive.
*This is a line from August Burns Red’s song “Ghosts.”