The prophet Micah tells us what the Lord desires from His people:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, New International Version).
What exactly does it mean to love mercy?
What is mercy?
When it’s within our power or right to punish or harm someone but we show compassion and forgiveness instead, we’re demonstrating mercy. And while we’d all like to think of ourselves as merciful, it’s not a trait that comes naturally.
When a Hollywood studio needs a film that will generate quick income, they look for a good revenge story. They know that the public will flock to a story about a mild-mannered person pushed to seek his own justice. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with retaliation and comeuppance, even when it’s in the form of a wisecracking protagonist that derides a stupid question or statement with a verbal uppercut.
Mercy looks beyond what someone deserves, so that they can experience what could only be theirs through benevolence.
Mercy is a sacrifice
When you take stuff to Goodwill, you’re probably not sacrificing your favorite items. You’re likely decluttering, getting rid of belongings you never use, and making room for new stuff. But by giving old things to Goodwill instead of throwing them away, you have the feeling that you’re more charitable than you truly are.
The same thing happens when we think about mercy. When we’re nice instead of being grumpy to others, we imagine ourselves as merciful. But true mercy always has an element of sacrifice to it. It’s the way we respond after something has been taken from us. It’s how we react after we’ve been treated poorly.
Les Miserables’ Bishop Myriel
Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who has just spent 19 years doing hard labor for the crime of stealing bread. As a criminal, Valjean isn’t welcome anywhere. So he ends up being taken in by a local church.
Knowing that God’s law requires love, charity, and hospitality, Bishop Myriel tells Valjean, “Though our lives are very humble, what we have we have to share.”
In a desperate act, Valjean takes off in the middle of the night with the church’s silverware and is caught by the police the next morning. When questioned about the silver, Valjean tells the authorities that the bishop gave it to him. The police take him back to the bishop to corroborate his story.
Bishop Myriel is in a difficult position. He has shown this criminal charity and has been repaid with the theft of one of the church’s few extravagant possessions. He is well within his rights to tell the truth about this betrayal, and no one would question whether he did the right thing.
But instead of turning him in, the bishop grabs silver candlesticks from the church and shoves them into the criminal’s hands. He tells that police that not only did he give Valjean the church’s silverware, but he had also forgotten to take the candlesticks.
After the police have left, the bishop tells Valjean, “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. . . . Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Bishop Myriel acted mercifully when it seemed obvious that Valjean should be punished. Moreover, his act of compassion could have resulted in others being victimized by Valjean.
To see this situation from God’s perspective, the bishop had to sacrifice his pride and righteous indignation. Valjean had already responded to his kindness by stealing from him, but this act of mercy was akin to being victimized twice. He was sorely mistreated and was now letting this person get away with it.
Mercy isn’t just about being nice. It’s a kindness that is extended at personal cost when it’s within our power to do otherwise. It’s having the ability to see the big picture, instead of being focused on the respect, deference, and treatment we feel we deserve.
Learning to love mercy
God could demand mercy from us (and in many ways He does), but forcing us to act merciful doesn’t make us merciful. He wants us to love mercy because it’s the only way that we become people who naturally respond with grace and goodness.
If we want to be people who love mercy, we need to remember:
- How much mercy we require from God. The Bible is one story after another of God’s mercy triumphing over judgment. Despite constant betrayal, God responds with patience and mercy. And in the most shocking display of mercy in history, the sinless Christ went to the cross as punishment for all mankind’s sins.How much mercy we require from others. We’re all pretty supportive of mercy as a concept when we benefit from it. It’s when we need to extend it that we start looking for an alternative. Even in Christ, we struggle to work out our salvation and not make decisions that hurt ourselves and those around us. And God still displays His mercy to us.We need to remember how much mercy we’re shown by the people around us, and the fact that it’s not always an easy choice for them either.
- Mercy can do what judgment can’t. When Jean Valjean experiences the bishop’s mercy, it’s a game changer. This legitimate act of mercy engenders true change, and his character becomes one defined by selflessness and compassion. If he had experienced justice and was sent back to prison, it would only have hardened and embittered him more.
- We’re called to follow God’s example. In his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), Jesus tells us that we’re expected to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, NIV).
Although it isn’t always limited to showing forgiveness for wrongs others have committed, forgiveness is a huge component of mercy. And by showing deep kindness and warmth to others and wanting the best for them-even when they might not deserve it-we’re becoming lovers of mercy.