The Making of Merciful
Blessed are the merciful:
for they shall obtain mercy.
THE FIFTH BEATITUDE seems to offer some more straightforward "boot-strap religion." Virtue appears to be its own reward. If we are kind and forgiving toward other people, they together with Providence will be favorably disposed toward us. The way we treat those around us conditions the kind of clemency we receive, not only from our neighbors, but from God Himself. The Golden Rule (or a misunderstanding of it) is thus projected into outer space by a kind of celestial stimulus-response or push-button formula. If our welldoing measures up in quality, God presumably can be "triggered" into an appropriate response. Another well-known verse is often cited to underscore the point: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," to which is added our Lord's comment, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (Matthew 6:12,14).
We are seeking to interpret the Beatitudes by the Cross. We are seeking the person behind the teachings, believing that in these verses portraying the blessed man, Jesus Himself is the character described. Or as Carl Henry has interpreted it, "He clothes the Beatitudes with his own life."1
Jesus' life, we know, derives its full meaning from the Cross. How does the Cross bear out the "stimulus-response" interpretation of the fifth Beatitude? We may begin by saying that Jesus of Nazareth was one who practiced mercy daily. "All they that had any sick . . . brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them" (Luke 4:40). Compassion was the essence of His character. It led Him to frequent unsavory places and to touch the untouchable. It gave Him a special concern for the weak; for children, for the handicapped, for the misfits and victims of society. He refused to countenance violence or bloodshed on His behalf. Even on the Roman gallows, as the reformer Zwingli has said, our Lord was "true to Himself" and forgave those who sought to do away with Him. Yet when the sentence of man was passed upon Him, He received no clemency. His reward was neither acquittal nor pardon but execution, and there was no interference.
Here is the one stark fact about the crucifixion of Christ that stands out above all others: from every human
point of view it was merciless. It was brought about by the two cruelest forces of the ancient world: imperial might and religious fanaticism. Roman law was inexorable. Its justice was cruel and final. The empire that systematically enslaved sixty million people was in no mood to trifle with a man who, according to his own tribe, claimed to be a rival of Caesar. As for the religious bigots of the time, they (like their counterparts today of whatever persuasion) showed a supreme inability to sympathize with or understand someone of differing views. Thus the merciful one obtained no mercy.
We are forced to go back to our Beatitude and ask, "What does it mean?" Obviously it does not mean, "Do this and you'll get that." In the storm and stress of life no sheltered island is promised where the faithful will be rewarded. A dedicated Christian friend once said in my presence, "I believe that as long as I am taking care of my orphans, the Lord will take care of me." We can admire and love him for his compassionate heart; but what will he do with the Cross? For the Cross makes it clear that the way God takes care of us may be altogether different from the way we reward (or fail to reward) each other. If we are decent and loving to each other, we may reap thanks in this life and we may not. We may die full of years like Father Abraham and we may not. Life hands us no gilt-edged warranty that rectitude wins "the big payoff." If we look to Jesus Christ, He does not pin a "good-conduct" medal on our chests; He hands us a Cross.
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"The quality of mercy," says Portia, "is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." The Shakespearean figure is valid and Scriptural. It corrects the fallacy that mercy can be conjured up on earth out of a bottle or a good-will sack. Christian faith teaches that mercy does not go up that it may come down; it comes down period. It is unmerited favor from God himself to an erring people who can do nothing to earn it except to hold out their hands.
When we understand that mercy follows the line of vertical descent, the fog layers of our confusion begin to burn off. There is no stimulus-response, we discover; there is no bargaining for divine favor. To make a bargain one must have something to bargain with; and if we had anything to bargain with we would not need mercy. Our repentance is no asset, for it is the liquidation of all assets. "And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace" (Romans 11:6). There is no "triggering" here, for God's mercy belongs to Himself and He exercises Crown rights over what is His own. We can plead and beg for mercy, but you will note that the Beatitude does not suggest we shall necessarily receive it.
What, then? Having eliminated from our quest all human impulses, prayers, sympathies, pityings, generosities, deeds, penances, sacrifices, almsgiving, self-interest, props, crutches and derring-do; having seen that none of these have any claim on the mercy of the Lord; having
ascribed absolute sovereignty to God in all these matters as the sole fount of Grace, what are we to do next? What further conditions need to be fulfilled?
Let us see what the New Testament means by mercy. The word is not a synonym for charity or even for pity in its ordinary usage. Mercy is primarily the gracious act of God in dealing with men: not after their just deserts, but by releasing them, pardoning them, setting them free from the just penalty of their wrongdoings.
Mercy does not set aside justice or belittle justice. The Word of God is terrible in its promise of recompense: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord!" Mercy does not minimize the offense of the Cross. "If I were God," cried Martin Luther, "and the world had treated me as it has treated Him, I would kick the wretched thing to pieces." Yet so unspeakable is the love of God that He took the penalty of our sin upon Himself, that mercy might "rejoice" over judgment (James 2:13), and the stain upon men's lives might be wiped away.
Today the earth and the skies are filled with signs that suggest not the mercy of God but rather impending doom. The race for space is just another indication that the Lord is inexorable in His judgments upon sin, and "the way of the ungodly shall perish." It is a time when men's hearts are failing them for fear; when the imagination shrinks at the portents of the future. What should the Christian do? Should he raise children, vote for school bonds, build his church and try to live a decent life,
when the Lord seems about to permit him to blast himself off the planet?
To know God is to know the answer. As the Scripture says, He is slow to anger, kind, patient, compassionate, ready to pardon, eager to impart to us the gift of Life. At the Cross love triumphed over justice in the heart of our heavenly Father, and every condition was fulfilled that was required to set men free from the power that thwarts their lives. You and I may hold back with our doubts; we may hesitate to accept God's offer of pardon and peace; but there is no straining the quality of God's mercy. All He requires is our brokenness.
To walk in that mercy is to know freedom from worry about the future, for the future lies with God. It is to know freedom from worry about the present, because each day is a walk in fellowship with our Lord. And it is to know freedom from worry about the past, because "the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin."
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What is a merciful man? The New Testament's answer is that he is first of all mercy-full. He is filled with the mercy of God, and in that state he is emptied of everything else, or the term means nothing. We quickly recognize that the ordinary meaning of the term "merciful" today is hardly "mercy-full," any more than "graceful" suggests in common usage "filled with the Grace of God." Yet let us reflect a moment: mercy, we
said, descends from heaven as a prime attribute of God. How then can we speak of a merciful person without suggesting the fullness of God in him?
The quintessence of mercy lies in its moving beyond the nicely calculated judgments that regulate our human relationships. It transcends the strictures of justice. Perhaps a very earthy incident will illustrate the operation of free mercy in the Kingdom of God. The municipality of Richmond, California, maintains a carefully-worked-out system of traffic ordinances, with fines graded according to the seriousness of the offense. Not long ago I was stopped by a servant of that city and charged with a violation involving a fine of some twenty-seven dollars. When court convened I entered a plea of "guilty." Apart from explaining that the act was "unintentional," I made no effort to defend myself. The judge, surprisingly, set aside the hierarchy of penalties and proceeded to administer not justice but mercy. I walked out of the courtroom a defenseless violator of the law, stripped of every "extenuating circumstance" and disarmed of every rationalization, yet pardoned and filled with mercy.
Until a man has encountered the living Lord in some such way he cannot know the meaning of the word "merciful."
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd'st me come to thee . . . .
To be merciful is to be filled with God. The eyes of compassion are no human eyes. When we look feelingly
upon our brother in need, it is not our own feelings that affect us; our own feelings are quite "unfeeling." In the battle for survival it is "every man for himself" and we are quite "merciless." God pity us; we even take secret enjoyment in other people's discomfiture. When we look upon our brother in mercy, it is the Lord who looks and feels and makes use of us as His instruments, "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). Writing to a mother who had lost her child, Baron von Hügel declared, "It is He who made the mother's heart; it is not simply her love, but in the first instance His love, with just some drops of it fallen into the mother's heart . . ."2 Since God is the author of all mercy, every cup of cold water is really given in the name of Jesus, although only those who are in the beloved can understand the reward.
Once on a by-street in Hilo, Hawaii, I witnessed a strange sight that has haunted me ever since. It was a trial conducted by a flock of mynah birds. In the center of the street one forlorn bird had alighted, and in a surrounding circle several feet in diameter were fifteen or twenty of its "peers." The trial consisted of shrieking and chattering and hopping up and down. At the conclusion of the deliberations the jury pounced upon the bird in the center and pecked it to death with long, sharp beaks. Then court was adjourned and all flew into nearby trees. Shocked at this disturbance in nature, I went over and removed the body.
More than once since then I have seen men behave in ways that reminded me of a mynah-bird trial. Justice that is not tempered with mercy is perpetually in danger of becoming "mynah-bird justice."
Speaking vertically, with reference to God, no one of us can make any pretensions in the realm of mercy. We are all mynah birds at heart. We are disqualified by our very natures. We cannot administer what we do not have. Only God can make us merciful; only God is unfailing in pity and tenderness; only "his mercy endureth forever." And so great was God's love toward us that He disregarded our shortcomings, failures, and missing of the mark, and sent us a clean bill of health. He published His amnesty and established His fount of mercy on the most unlikely spot on the face of the earth: the Golgotha execution grounds. It was there, where murder was officially condoned by mankind in the name of religion and law, where imperial justice and ecclesiastical scruple had smothered every spark of human pity, that we received eternal pardon and grace.
No wonder men have been confused by the Cross! For amid all the "mynah-bird" passions at the Place of the Skull, the believing Christian has found nothing but love love love, and mercy surpassing all earthly thoughts and deeds. The bloodstained beams have become the precious and beautiful symbol of salvation. The whole sordid, rubbish-littered scene of Calvary has been forever transfixed with the ineffable glory of God.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free,
Pardon there was multiplied to me,
There my burdened soul found liberty,
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This Beatitude offers us a chance to re-examine some of the sore points in our personal lives. Perhaps we think we have treated our neighbor justly, but have we been merciful? The merciful man is the magnanimous man. He "overlooks" the wrongs that have been done him, just as God, in the words of Paul, "passed over" our former sins (Romans 3:25). That is, the Christian hands out horizontally toward his fellow what he has received vertically from the Lord.
There are seasons when Christians are invited to make a special gift to the One Great Hour of Sharing or similar charity for the relief of the world's suffering. In our self-inventory today we are asking whether such generosity is merely applying salve to our sore consciences. It may be a different story when we are asked to be men of mercy to the Jew or the devout Roman Catholic or the man of different skin alongside us, or to the rather obnoxious alcoholic across the street, or even to the person living under the same roof with us. "You have to do a lot of business with God," says Edward John Carnell, "to mellow out in sweetness." Yet in parable after parable Jesus Christ identifies Himself with just such folk as "these my brethren."
Even if we have the good will to be merciful, and we sincerely want to be used of God as instruments of His grace, we do not always know how to proceed. Should we "tell off" a person
for his own good? Is it not more merciful in some cases to be polite and tactful, and to skip the facts? Does a man achieve more under a "hard-boiled" boss than under one who is gentle and "merciful"? Could there be a situation in which it would be kind to be harsh, and unkind to be kind?
Ernest Ligon, the child psychologist, suggests, "Mercy does not always express itself by withholding punishment. For one child punishment may be necessary, in another it may produce a sullen, spiritless, and anti-social personality. Permitting a youth to work his way through college may develop a sense of responsibility in one student, produce an overmaterialistic, money-grabbing philosophy of life in another, and an inferiority complex in a third."3
If it takes wisdom to establish justice, it takes even more to have mercy; in fact, it takes more than man possesses. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Christian hardly knows how to begin to act. The making of merciful men is a divine art. If there is any one rule that can be given, it is, "Follow Jesus Christ."
A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to South America where he investigated the state of the Church. Everywhere he went he discovered that the Pentecostal movement is making strides, and he inquired of the nationals and missionaries he met the reason for their advance. They told him, "The Pentecostals are accepted because they believe that Jesus has the answer to every problem."
Certainly in the matter of mercy we can trust Jesus. He was not soft as mush, He was hard as steel. The sternest words in the Bible are not found in the Old Testament, they are found on the lips of Jesus; yet His life was a symphony of mercy.
He teaches us that the merciful man is the one who seeks to save others from suffering, even at the cost of immediate pain, and even if it means vicarious suffering on his own part. From Jesus we gather that the merciful man does not seek to improve his own status at the expense of the misery of his fellow. He leaves practical jokes to others. He has a compassionate heart. he goes the second mile. He brushes off the slights and buffets that come his way as of little consequence. In all these things he anticipates no reward, but simply conforms in obedience to the pattern of his Master.
In the tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews the center of worship was the Mercy Seat, over which brooded the cherubim with wings outstretched above the Ark of the Covenant. When the veil of the temple was torn in two at the time of the Crucifixion, Jesus Christ became our Mercy Seat. It is from that Seat that our Lord creates the man of mercy. He does not promise such a man that he shall have "self-fulfillment" as our culture understands it, or even that he shall be "happy," as some translators interpret the first word of our Beatitude.
Nevertheless Jesus Christ does promise a blessing and it is this: open access to all the riches of heaven. To "obtain mercy" is not only to receive a passport to immortality; it is to unlock the door to life's greatest mystery
and its most elusive, guarded secret. What the artist dreams of in her cubes and abstractions, what the alchemist searched for in his magic elixir, what the manager pursues in her disappearing "plateau" of success is what the Lord Jesus Christ issues as standard equipment for those who are His own: peace with joy in the borrowed dimensions of mercy.
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To read the New Testament is to realize that we are not just saved from something but for something. God's purpose in accomplishing our salvation was, after all, to make us useful to Himself. We are newly "created in Christ Jesus unto good works"; and those works are, broadly speaking, works of mercy. By now it should be evident that our Beatitude is not so much a statement of cause and effect as it is an equation. It could be equally well stated in reverse: "Blessed are they that obtain mercy: for they shall be merciful." Our Lord said something very much like it in Luke's account of the Sermon on the Plain: "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
The same kind of equation is evident in the verse, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." It is not simply cause and effect ("If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you"), for it also works in reverse: "Be ye kind . . . forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). The whole earth is filled with
the mercy of God. We love our fellow human beings because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), but we also love them in order that we might love God better (1 John 4:20). Our works of mercy do not earn our fare to heaven, they are simply the staple diet of the Christian life. As the practical proverb puts it, "The merciful man doeth good to his own soul" (Proverbs 11:17).
The world desperately needs to learn that Jesus went to the Cross to create a race of new men merciful men. It needs these men, for our human race is perishing for lack of love and mercy. We may have thought once that we were outgrowing the cruelties of the ancients and the "barbarians," but we have been rudely awakened. The latest revolution in Cuba employed the same brutal tortures that were used in primeval Egypt and Phoenicia. God is weary of our inhumanities. He is looking for this new race to assert itself: men who will take Jesus Christ seriously, men of mercy who are willing to make the same kind of absolute sacrifice in His name and in our time. Such men He will use mightily.
A debate is being waged around the world today over the words "justice" and "democracy." Our nation is committed to its hard-won convictions; we will part with them dearly indeed. However, in other parts of the world we are told that our democracy is not pure, and that our freedom is not freedom at all. Many of our difficulties are semantic. There is tremendous confusion simply over words.
It is not so with regard to mercy. Its meaning is changeless. There is no mistaking the cry of a ragged,
starving child, or the timid handclasp of the friendless and downtrodden. Need speaks a universal language and hunger knows no iron curtain. We never seem to run out of the demands of mercy, for the tyrant is always at hand, and no immigration statutes seem to keep out the oppressor of the poor. The beggars with their sores were pitiful in Jesus' day, but the suffering and homelessness of thousands and even millions in our time are more poignant because our nations possess the technical ability to relieve the condition.
There is indescribable poverty in this year of Grace in Korea, in Hong Kong, in Jordan, in India, in Africa, but we need not go so far afield. Within a dozen miles of where you live there is destitution that you never suspected was there. Visit a city rescue mission and let life speak to you.
John R. Mott once described the call of God in a man's life as "the recognition of a need and the capacity to meet that need." We who go by the name of Christ and who see the need have a task that is herculean. We dwell in a century which, whatever else it may be called, will never be known as the "Century of Mercy." Its latest tragic development is the emergence of Communist "assistance to backward nations." The merciless are now simulating mercy, not out of love for the brethren but in order to propagandize an appeal for world domination.
Our Western leaders are being told that they must quickly extend a helping hand to the world's wretched or fall before the power of a dictatorship. Frank Laubach says,
"The United States must make an all-out effort to help the destitute half of the world out of its misery, or we shall find that the world has gone Communist because of our neglect." His entreaty is based on absolute truth, but it will be ignored. Fear has never yet begotten mercy and kindness. Only Christians who know the perfect love that casts out fear can act with what Samuel Hopkins called "disinterested benevolence." With the New Testament as their guide, they must take the lead in teaching the world the sincere brotherly concern and humanity that is the stamp of the Savior on a man's life.
Our Beatitude is more than an equation; it is an intersection, a meeting of the vertical with the horizontal. That mercy which "drops as a gentle rain from heaven" covers the earth with streams of living water. The free Grace of God becomes a human commodity, not for profit but for blessing in the everyday encounters of life. The very things which, we said earlier, could not incite the mercy of God toward us become the vehicles whereby we are to express God's love and compassion: our sympathies, pityings, generosities, deeds, sacrifices, and charity. The divine forgiveness, by which we are "accepted in the beloved," is mediated through us as a means of reconciling man with man.
1. Carl Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1957.
2. Essays and Addresses, E.P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1921.
3. Ernest Ligon, The Psychology of Christian Personality, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1935.
Chapter 6 || Table of Contents