Saturday

Mercy out of Control

It seems that the history of mankind can be described as a rush from one extreme position to another, like a pendulum gone. We’re doing it again.

For the past several decades, we’ve lost track of the promise at the end of James 2:13: “…Mercy triumphs over judgment.” For the past several decades, the church has earned a reputation as a house of judgment and intolerance, of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Frankly, we’ve earned the reputation.

You’ve may have noticed, however, that the pendulum is swinging back, as is its wont. There are several changes that are happening in the church that reflect the pendulum’s return: one that I have observed over the past several years today is a rise, an increase, in the expression of mercy gifts among individuals in the church. It’s one reflection of the change in direction of the church: we’re becoming less judgmental, and more merciful.

We certainly need that change. The bad news is that the world has judged the church for being judgmental and out of touch, and that judgment has been appropriate. The good news is that the church is changing her heading, but it seems that we’re headed for increased turbulence with the corrections we’re making, not toward calmer waters.

The increase of the gift of mercy within the church, has not been well documented, and indeed it’s difficult to document and to analyze. You may or may not have seen what I have been observing for the past year; it is indeed subtle. Allow me to state my point fairly directly, and you can make your own observations.

Our text, then, is Romans 12:6-8:

“Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

First, let’s agree that mercy really is a gift, and by divine command, it is to be exercised with “cheerfulness” (literally hílarós, a root word that has become “hilarity” in English).

It’s my observation as one who has been a part of the church for a bunch of decades, that there are more people in the church now than there were a decade ago who are gifted with mercy, and the gift is more respected than it has been before. The church is more aware now than perhaps ever of the need to respond to sinners with understanding and empathy rather than a good clubbing with Old Testament Law. Our services often focus on meeting the needs of “pre Christians” rather than discussing sin and its consequences for “sinners.”

We have softened our approach to people-different-than-ourselves, and even many of our street evangelists are asking questions or meeting needs more than proclaiming judgment on street-corners.

That much is good.

The context for this growth in mercy, however, has been neither cheerfulness nor hilarity. The mercy that is growing in the church is growing without having been disciplined, it is mercy out of control, and it is becoming a destructive force in the church.

Pastors and other leaders are finding themselves confronted by their congregations for being too stern, too strict when confronting sloth or sin. Church discipline – ever the touchy subject – has become anathema: we’re afraid to go there.

Often, the confronter is motivated at least in part by mercy: let’s not be too harsh. But it’s mercy out of control, mercy without discipline behind it, mercy without maturity. The resulting of the conversation – a pastor afraid to speak the truth – is not normally considered a step toward maturity. This is mercy guided by ignorance or (worse) rebellion.

For example, a friend of mine leads a worship band, and her drummer was getting lazy. He’d use the same riffs for nearly every song, and his playing had gotten boring: he was stagnant and worse than that, he was content with being stagnant. As the leader, she had spoken to him a couple of times privately, and they’d agreed on certain goals, and on the means to achieve those goals.

Once during rehearsal, he drifted back into his old, stagnant patterns, and she needed to remind him of the standards they had agreed to. But when she did, she was surprised to find several other members of the band getting in her face about how she had “judged” him. The other members thought they were being “merciful” (and indeed, they are known to be merciful people), but because their mercy was un-tempered by self-control, it brought division, not unity to their band. This was mercy guided by self-indulgence.

In 1 Samuel 15, God sent king Saul to destroy the Amelekites, with specific instruction to kill everything:

“But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Saul musters the army and conquers the enemy, but instead of obeying God, he shows mercy:

“But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them.”

Sure, there were other motivations; greed come to mind, but the act was merciful, whether it was mixed with lesser values or not.

The story concludes with God judging Saul, not because he was merciful (who is more merciful than God?), but because Saul’s mercy was undisciplined, and the fruit was disobedience. Saul feared the people more than he feared God; God could no longer trust him as king, and He fired him and began preparing David to replace him.

In our school district, very few students are “flunked” or “held back” because it’s considered bad for the student’s self-esteem. I’m all for being careful with kids’ tender hearts, but if a teacher feels pity for a capable-but-undisciplined student, and passes a failing student for whatever reason, that teacher is not doing the student any favors. If the kid can’t read his own high-school diploma because of well-meaning, but ultimately short-sighted policies, that student will still be illiterate and functionally unemployable, all because of his educators’ misguided mercy. This is mercy guided by short-sightedness, by fear of confrontation, or perhaps mercy without guidance at all.

For the past twenty years, the church has been getting used to the rebirth of prophetic gifts. We’ve seen Prophetic Schools and Prophetic Training Classes and Prophetic Conferences by the hundreds. All of this has been an attempt to teach the prophetic people how to minister their prophetic gifts: ultimately, it’s been aimed at producing mature prophets and prophetesses, who use their gifts responsibly: in other words, we’ve been breeding self-control into the prophetic movement, and I for one, am thankful for it. (Who wants to return to the prophetic firefights and free-for-alls of the late ’80’s? Not I, thank you very much!)

So consider this a call (perhaps even a prophetic call?) to arms on behalf of the restoration of the gift of mercy. It’s time for mercy to come to the forefront in the church.

And it’s time that we begin to expect, even plan for, maturity in the gift of mercy.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Mature mercy triumphs better.

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