Mindset Number Two: You cannot earn mercy, or require others to earn it.
On the popular ABC show, Modern Family, the character Phil wants deeply to be there for his family. He is a bit of a goofball, but warm-hearted and well-intentioned. One of his weaknesses is a fear of clowns. On one recent episode, Phil is forced to face his fears when a child’s birthday party is floundering, due to a missing entertainment act. Phil decides to play the role of the clown in order to save the day. He begins well, until he looks into a mirror and sees a clown staring back. He immediately faints, embarrasses the family, and causes quite a public scene.
For the rest of the episode, Phil attempts to earn back his ability to help and support the family. First he tries to fix a computer and fries it. Next, he fixes a leak and causes a flood instead. Everything he touch breaks. His family begs him to stop trying.
This is how we can be. We do something wrong, and assume we need to make up for it. If we could just do this one great thing, we can be forgiven.
My husband has tried this method when seeking forgiveness. A foreigner to the kitchen, he will decide to make me a meal. What begins as “dinner will be ready in 30 minutes” ends with a two-hour wait, smoke alarm going off, burnt dinner and destroyed kitchen. Sometimes, attempting to earn things causes greater loss. We need to learn the lesson that Phil’s family was begging him to understand: Stop trying to earn it. Sometimes, we must walk away, say, I need your forgiveness, and just sit in our human condition. We are not beings who can make everything better and erase all of our mistakes. We should try not to repeat the same mistake, but we cannot make ourselves worthy of mercy with other tasks and things.
Mercy and forgiveness aren’t quantifiable. We cannot say to one another, “If you do these five things perfectly, you receive my mercy. Otherwise, you are anathema.” It either exists as part of a culture or it doesn’t. You do not get it when you are worthy. If we were worthy of mercy, it would be called justice. They are not the same thing.
In the Old Testament, humans had to earn God’s forgiveness by offering sacrifices to the temple. They brought unblemished animals of varying size depending on their sins. Did that get the people in line? Did they go and sin no more? Humans fell anyway, and continue to fall. Humanity did not work well with conditional forgiveness. God created unconditional love, and a permanent way back to Him in Divine Mercy. Jesus is our sacrificial Lamb who atones for sins, permanently. And that’s why it works. We don’t earn it. We just need to want it.
Just as God does not make us jump through hoops for His mercy, we can’t make people grovel for ours. . We see this played out in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:26-28). We cannot seek constant mercy to God, and then turn around and deny it to our brothers and sisters. When faced with the need to gift mercy to others, we need to remember the un-earned mercy given to us first.