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.

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