“Linda, all you do is talk.” Her words stung to the very core of my being. She had indicated in an email that she felt she was no longer in the communication loop regarding an especially important matter; that she felt cut off. I swallowed hard and called her on the phone. “Grace, Lord, grace.” I began to fill her in on the information she said she wanted and to make sure she no longer felt excluded. The response I got was, “All you do is talk.”
That phone exchange surfaced feelings of anger, hurt, conviction, and deep grief all swirling together. Taking risks in relationships can expose us to the possibility of loss. I’ve heard a lot of heartbreaking stories like mine, especially in this season of upheaval and political division. Messages on social media have often become vitriolic and hateful. What’s a person to do? Sometimes unfriending and blocking content is the gracious action so as not to escalate frustration, conflict, and judgment. I certainly know it’s not healthy for me to be on social media that much these days.
The prophet Micah points out “what the Lord requires” in a very familiar verse. His Word is the plumb line for the way we live our lives, so to the Scriptures we must go as believers. What does God call me to do? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
What does it mean to “love mercy”? By definition, mercy is the “act of withholding deserved punishment." In this age of pandemic, becoming faced with limited freedoms and space makes this mandate especially challenging. By now, many are aware of the mercy and grace we all need to exercise towards our family and friends as our world feels small and unmerciful. But think about it: mercy is most needed in painful and uncomfortable situations. When everyone is getting along there doesn’t seem to be much need for mercy, right? God on the other hand is a constant dispenser of mercy, and it has come at a great cost. He knows we need it daily. It’s why He sent Jesus as a human. The painful reality: it’s why Jesus had to go to the cross.
According to Scripture, God is the founder and CEO of Mercy. He’s got the patent because, let’s be honest, we all deserve judgment because of our sin. The very nature of mercy is that none of us deserves it, remember? As Tim Keller is quoted, “The Gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” We do not receive from the Lord what our sins deserve. That’s the amazing thing about God: He sent Jesus to rescue us from the sins that dishonor Him and damage others. He invites us into the deeper work of mercy, where He turns our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
The first step in extending mercy toward others is to realize our own powerlessness in giving it apart from Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. I find myself often in a disorienting darkness that needs the light of the ever-merciful Christ shining in. It’s in these uncomfortable times that God speaks a word of conviction that reveals the work He desires to do. But facing the truth about one’s heart of stone is painful. Even Jesus, who was without sin, faced an unmerciful world and culture. He was met with rejection, hostility, and death threats. As Jane Williams writes in The Art of Advent, “[Jesus’] own people doubt Him and are offended by His claims to authority. This theme seems to repeat itself throughout human interaction with God. We will put up with a god who gives us what we want and does not demand too much of us, but we reject a God who expects to shape us, even if that might be for our own good.” Acknowledging our own need for mercy is the first step in being able to extend it to others.
Near the end of her book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, Anne Lamott writes, “Mercy creates a future for the downtrodden, hopeless, and hungry.” I consider myself in all three of those categories today, as I just found out that my mom, who I wrote about in my blog a few weeks ago, passed away in the middle of the night. There have been significant disagreements in my family over her care in recent months. I know the Holy Spirit is presently shaping me to be a better listener and extender of mercy, but it will be a wrestling match between God and me in these next weeks to find peace. But nothing surprises our Great High Priest. He comes in the middle of our pain and grief. He came into the midst of a chaotic and unmerciful world 2000+ years ago for this very reason: to rescue and free us from the things that so easily entangle us; to demonstrate that He knows and empathizes with our weaknesses.
How is He shaping you these days? Are you known for your mercy and grace? Change is a painful process because it requires surrender to Him in the hard work. The Holy Spirit shapes us as vessels of His mercy for the sake of others. He is the Potter, we are the clay. Hebrews 4:16 reminds us to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” I know I need that grace more than ever right now. The greatest thing we can do this Christmas is to be mercy and grace dispensers. It is God’s chief vocation for His people. May it be the hallmark of our church family.