Friday, March 23, 2007

Real Mercy for Real Debtors

Okay, so it has been more than a day - life has a way of being, so ... daily. My inconsistent blogging aside I want to explore the concept of earned mercy. Kind of a contradiction in terms if you understand what mercy truly is - the undeserved forbearance or suspension of deserved justice or punishment. The way I explain it to my kids is: Mercy is not getting the just punishment you deserve. Grace is getting a benefit or reward that you do not deserve.

As the parents of 7 kids ages 19 - 9 my wife and I get ample opportunity to to have our children experience both. So when we found exotic lip gloss in our 9 year-old's pocket after a shopping trip, we made arrangements to go back to the store so she could apologize to the store manager and pay for the stolen goods. We also let her know that shoplifting was a crime that could be prosecuted by the store. My wife went in first to talk to the manager so that she would respond with appropriate seriousness and not just pat our adorable daughter on the head and dismiss everything with a "That's all right honey." That is not grace or mercy. So with tears and trembling lip the young thief stood before the manager and offered both her money and her apology, both of which were sternly but graciously accepted. And while justice rightly allowed for police intervention, the manager extended mercy and suspended this deserved consequence. So, my daughter experienced both relief from guilt through forgiveness and release from the punishment through mercy. Neither of which she will soon forget.

Jesus on Mercy & Forgiveness
Jesus painted a similar picture of the mercy God the Father extends to us in Matthew 18:21 and the parable of the unmerciful servant. A king begins calling in his accounts, the rules were simple - pay what you owe, or go to the debtors prison to work off the debt. A man with a debt equivalent to millions of dollars is brought in. He can't begin to pay and the king justly orders him, his wife and kids and everything he owns sold to repay the debt. The man in desperation falls at the kings feet and begs for mercy "Be patient with me and I'll pay everything back." Yeah right. It would take him multiple lifetimes to even make a dent in it. Its a ridiculous and unrealistic plea. But, for whatever reason, the king goes for it. Well actually, the king is more realistic than the servant, and instead takes pity on him and cancels the debt. It would have been merciful if he'd simply left him out of prison and let him work till his dying day throwing pennies at the million dollar debt - at least he would have been with his family. But the king/master goes a quantum leap beyond this and frees him from all indebtedness. Whoa! The wife is never going to believe this. Not only has he been mercied (the deserved prison sentence removed), but he has been graced (granted the undeserved gift of a debt wiped out).

But his wife never finds out. On the way home he runs into a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of $10.00. He grabs the guy around the neck and says "Hey buddy, pay what you owe me now!" The guy doesn't have it, and begs for mercy. But the first servant serves justice and has they guy thrown in prison till he can pay it all back. Some fellow servants can't believe what they've just witnessed and they go to the master with the story. The master calls the servant in and says "I canceled your debt because you begged for mercy. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant." The master turns this ungrateful servant over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay back all he owed. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matt 18:21-35).

What's the point?
God the Father has extended an infinite amount of both mercy and grace to us as sinners. We've broken every commandment God has given, if not in practice, in principle. James 2:10 -- you break one commandment, you've broken them all and we do this on a daily, at times hourly basis. Earn mercy? Not only is the idea oxymoronic, its ludicrous. We could never do enough "good" to somehow merit the forgiveness of our offense against a totally holy God. That's why Jesus has the "master/king" in the parable simply forgive the whole debt of his servant - even though the servant offered to pay it back. The truth is the servant could have never done it and would have died in debt, and he and the king both knew it.

The question is: Do we?
Do we see that our sin debt is so great, our only hope is that the King of Kings be merciful to us and grant us a total and free pardon for sin. Yes, its undeserved, yes we get out of a huge punishment we most justly deserve, yes it cuts our pride off at the knees to realize mercy is our only option for spiritual survival. And yes, its the only way to be totally sin-debt free. And yes it will go against everything in our sinful, selfish flesh to cry "Mercy."

The sad thing is the LDS Church, rather than encourage its membership to cry out in humility and brokenness for mercy, feeds a person's pride and spiritually enslaves its followers by telling them they can and must earn God's mercy by continual repentance and obedience. Not only does this drive people deeper into bondage to the religious organization which dictates what obedience is and what repentance looks like, it totally skews for them the reality of God's mercy for people who need and long for true forgiveness.

The apostle Peter denied Jesus - not once but three times. He knew what it meant to receive mercy and wrote in one of his letters in the first century: "Praise be to God ... in his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope ..." (1 Pet. 1:3)

As long as your trying to earn mercy, you'll never receive it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Earned Mercy Isn't

My teenagers were playing a friendly game of Mercy the other night. You've probably played it - you face off with someone, put your hands together, palm to palm, interlace fingers and then see who can bend the other's fingers and hand back to the point where the pain is intolerable, wrenching, squeezing, a stiff, disjointed dance for dominance that ends when someone cries out "Mercy!". And the point of the game is just that - though the dominant person has gained a position whereby he could inflict even further pain and injury to the opponent, at the cry of "mercy", mercy is indeed rendered and the tortured one's hand is released, usually with good-natured laughter and the appearance of a new challenger.

A friend's newsletter* noted that Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott addressed the subject of mercy at the last LDS general conference (Oct. 2006). Since mercy is an essential facet of our relationship to God I was curious how it would be presented. Mercy by definition is "compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; ... Mercy implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it."

In short, mercy is not receiving the punishment we justly deserve. By definition mercy is both unearned and unmerited.

I pulled our Nov. 2006 Ensign to see what Elder Scott had to say, and noted the following:
If not resolved, broken laws can cause your life to be miserable and would keep you from returning to God. ...The demands of justice for broken law can be satisfied through mercy, earned by your continual repentance and obedience to the laws of God (p. 42).

Wait a minute, mercy earned by continual repentance and obedience? This is a troubling thought, but I'm late for a meeting, so I'll pick this up tomorrow, hopefully. Until then, feel free to meditate on Titus 3:5 which states:

he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

*(Mormonism Researched, Mar-Apr 2007)