We hear the word “mercy” in church pews and secular speech alike. It sounds good. We theoretically have no issue with it. In abstract terms, we desire to be merciful. But what is mercy? What does it look like? How does it feel?
When we need to be merciful, we are not in states of calm or clarity. We are not in the same state as when we hear the word preached to us. We are in moments of stress, anger, and deep emotions. We are debating flight or fight. Because of this, mercy cannot be something we think of as good. It must become a reflex—a second nature in our lives, so that no matter what happens to us, our reaction is based on the same principle. I’d like to set forth two mindsets of mercy that can create a foundation to develop that reflex.
Mindset Number One: In family life, there must be a safe space with commitment and unconditional love for mercy to thrive.
The public world is not a safe space. Choose any news article of the day, and scroll down to read the internet comments below. We believe deeply in public stoning and shaming. Rather than “Let he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” we say “Stone away!” In fact, if you do not stone her, you will be shamed for not decrying the injustice. We treat others very conditionally, looking for ways and reasons to not have to love them. “I love my neighbor…except for those thugs. They can rot in jail.”
What happens in this type of world? We live with deep-seated insecurities about abandonment, and we lie our way into perfection. Look at our athletes, celebrities, politicians, and others in the spotlight. Lance Armstrong, despite questions, stared straight into the camera denying doping allegations for nearly a decade before admitting fault. Reporters read quotes back to politicians that they themselves spoke and they deny it. Rachel Dolezal, a recent victim of public bashing, was outed for faking her race. Despite her obviously Caucasian parents calling her out, Dolezal stated “I self-identify as black.” Even when caught in lies, these public figures decide that it is a better strategy to maintain the lie than to own their mistakes and seek forgiveness, because forgiveness is seldom granted.
The family is one of the only spaces left for mercy. Do we cultivate it? Or do we love conditionally as we do in the public sphere? Do we really believe that nothing is unforgivable, or in the back of our heads, do we have an escape clause? “If he does this, I will divorce him.” “If she comes home like that, I will disown her.” “I’m never speaking to you again.” Our disposable culture values the idea that no one is ever “stuck,” and nothing is ever permanent, which has corroded our loyalty to one another.
A few years ago, an relative of mine sank into deep alcoholism. In order to maintain his drinking, he started lying. He told the family that he was dying of liver cancer and had only a month to live. We were distraught, to say the least. His sister took a trip to help take care of him in what she thought was his final weeks. As she cared for him, she started to notice holes in his story, and differences in his medical needs. She eventually put the pieces together and realized what was happening. Now, she very easily could have abandoned him in just anger. She could have screamed, or shamed him. But instead, she showed the mercy that needs to exist in family. Because what she needed wasn’t to be right or vindicated. She needed her brother back. And he didn’t need to be shamed. He needed to heal. She sat him down, looked him in the eye, and said, “I am your sister. I do not care if you murdered someone. I love you anyway. Tell me what is going on.” After a long conversation, this relative had a safe space to own his alcoholism. He was able to get the help he needed, his sister by his side, and has healed.
We must allow others to own their mistakes without making them feel terrible. We must love without condition, understanding that we are all in need of mercy at some point in our lives. We must celebrate their return from sin, not destroy them for having sinned in the first place.
This is part of a two-part series on Mercy.