Unexpected Mercy

It seems to me that mercy is not truly mercy unless it is unexpected. If I am anticipating or expecting or demanding mercy, then it ceases being mercy and becomes some sort of merit, because a demand or expectation (or even anticipation) implies that there is a reason I think that favor or kindness should be granted to me. But true mercy is not given due to any deservedness of the recipient, but is based only on the graciousness of the Giver. Therefore true mercy always comes as a surprise.

It is that element of surprise in Jesus’ parables of mercy that drive home His point so effectively. I commiserate with the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the lost sons (Luke 15), because I too am shocked that the father would respond in such an unfair and reckless way to this son who has brought shame on the whole family. It is clear what the younger brother deserves–even he knows it–so when he receives a party instead of prison, a hug instead of a rebuke, the indignation of his older brother is certainly understandable. But the older brother’s indignation indicates an expectation, which is then proven by his angry, disrespectful words to his father demanding similar treatment based on his responsibility and dutifulness. Thus in their commiseration with the older brother, the listeners of Jesus’ parable are indicted by their self-righteous expectation of “mercy”…as am I.

In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), again I commiserate with the workers who toiled all day for their day’s wage and were then incensed that the slackers who had only worked an hour received the same wage. The full-day workers may not have deserved more (because they did receive the agreed-upon day’s wage), but the part-day workers certainly deserved less, therefore when they were paid equally, there was much surprise and consternation. But again, that anger stemmed from an expectation that they should receive more than the others, due to their longer labor that day (Matt. 20:10). And again, Jesus indicted His listeners’ self-righteous expectation of favor-based-on-merit, shown by their refusal to rejoice in the surprising mercy that was poured out on the undeserving.

The greatest display of Jesus’ mercy was not preached in a parable but carried out on a cross. And that greatest act of mercy was also the greatest surprise. Why would the sinless Son of God take on Himself the sin of all mankind, and bear the wrath of God that we as sinners justly deserve? Why would the Righteous One place His righteousness on we whose sins nailed Him to that cross? And perhaps the bigger, more pointed, question is this: Am I as surprised at the depth of mercy shown to me as I am at the mercy shown to someone I despise? If I am surprised and repulsed by the thought that God would show mercy on a person who has done such despicable acts as rape and murder, but I’m not very surprised at the mercy shown to me, doesn’t that imply that I think I’m somehow more deserving?

But what makes God’s mercy truly mercy is that it is poured out on undeserving souls in unexpected ways…so that He then gets all the glory. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy…” (Titus 3:4-5)


Mercy or Leniency?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mercy of God–how it always catches us by surprise. But I’ve also been struck by the realization that mercy is meaningless apart from justice. If there is no standard or law, and therefore no consequences for breaking the law, then mercy cannot exist because mercy by definition is judgment deserved but not given.

In part, I’ve been thinking about these things because I’m trying to figure out what it means to show mercy to Anah, my adopted daughter with special needs. Because all her formative years were spent in an orphanage, and because caregivers in an institution like that usually end up just doing things for children with disabilities (rather than spending the time to train the children how to care for themselves), then what Anah learned was to mindlessly wait for someone to do things for her. We have discovered, now that she is in our family, that she is quite smart and capable, but unless she is constantly challenged to think and to try, she will resort to mindless waiting.

Anah’s thinking is not sophisticated enough to understand the concept of mercy, nor to reason that she is somehow entitled to mercy. And yet it seems that she expects mercy from everyone around her, in which case it’s not truly mercy she is expecting, but leniency. She acts as if a smile or a blank look from her is all that is needed to get her way, because that has been the pattern of her life up to her adoption.

So what does it mean to show her mercy? Does that mean that we have to be really tough with her and wait until she understands the “law” of our home before we can show true mercy? Is our attempt at being merciful to her only reinforcing her mindlessness? Or should we not even be worrying about reinforcing negative behavior and just show mercy regardless?

At this point there are more questions than answers, but this I do know: God has shown much mercy to me, even when I haven’t understood it or recognized it as mercy. Because the longer I live, the more that I see how merciful God has been–and continues to be–to me.

50 Shades of Green

Living as long as I have now in the dry, brown metropolis of Southern California, I forget how refreshing and beautiful the color green can be. Spending a whole week driving and hiking through the mountains and forests and hillsides of Oregon in the springtime (as I just did this past week) reminded me of that beauty that I used to take for granted living in the Pacific Northwest.


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I Can’t Do This…

What does it mean to live in actual dependence on God? Not just to give lip-service to the truth of Jesus’ words that “Apart from Me, you can do nothing”, but to actually live as if that were true.

I think I know what dependence on God doesn’t mean. It isn’t an excuse for laziness or permission to disengage from what is difficult. Dependence is not synonymous with passivity, though it may involve releasing control over outcomes. Actual dependence on God doesn’t mean shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I guess there’s nothing I can do.” Neither is dependence a whiny wimpiness like what we might associate with a person who needs to grow up a bit and learn responsibility.

What I’m learning that perhaps dependence looks like is to come honestly before God saying “I can’t do this” and then go out and do it. In that I don’t mean that I simply utter those words before anything I attempt to do. Rather, it implies that I am actually facing the reality of my human limits, and being honest with God about something that I know is truly beyond my capability. In other words, as long as I surround myself with only what is comfortable and manageable, I won’t ever be in a place to honestly say to God “I can’t do this.” But if I allow Him to lead me to places that are uncomfortable and unknown and risky (which could be in any relationship), then I am opening the door to “I can’t do this.”

Simply acknowledging I can’t do this is not dependence, but dependence is then moving ahead to do what I know I cannot accomplish, trusting that God will empower me or work through me or provide some answer to my inadequacy and inability. That is what moves it from passivity to actual dependence.

So when I arrive home exhausted from work, yet know that I am called to engage deeply with my wife and children, I pray that little prayer as I get out of my car, “God, I can’t do this.” And then I go in the door and engage with them. When I’m needing to listen to someone share their struggles and I feel burnt out and have no answers for them, I say in my heart “God, I can’t do this” and then I sit down and listen. Dependence is not passivity, but neither is it a determined pushing forward in my own strength or wisdom. Rather, it is acknowledging my weakness and need, then moving forward trusting that God will do what I cannot.