It will be easy to miscommunicate on this subject, so let me state my premise, and then we’ll go to work on the subject: It’s my observation that most of the gifts of mercy that operate in our culture – both secular and spiritual – are messed up – out of control – and as a result, our mercy often does more harm than good. There are people who have what the Bible describes as a gift of mercy, and they’re real gifts. But too often, the gift is used inappropriately.
Let’s contrast this a couple of ways: First, there are others, who don’t have that gift, for whom it is less instinctive to respond with mercy; we’re not going to discuss these people today. Second, it’s possible to use this gift out of impure or inadequate motivation as it is for any other gift, and here is where there are some interesting lessons.
The other day I saw a mother and child in a grocery store; you’ve seen them too. The child is acting out in selfishness or in rebellion, and instead of disciplining the child, mom capitulates and the child gets her candy and is appeased for the moment. (We see the opposite often enough as well: a parent in the grocery store who disciplines the child to the point of abuse, but that’s not the point of this article.)
A friend of mine (we’ll call him “
The goal here is not to accuse or judge the addicted daughter, though doubtless she made her share of mistakes. The bigger error here may have been mom and dad not tempering their mercy with wisdom. Their choice was not between mercy and judgment (that one’s over: the Book is clear that “mercy triumphs over judgment”), but rather between the mercy of emotions and the mercy that is built on wisdom.
I tell these stories to illustrate my premise: most of the mercy gifts in the church today are out of control. First, we make the same mistake that
The second mistake we make is that we let the world tell us how we should express mercy, rather than letting God instruct us, and the world is not well informed in the wisdom of God. So the world says, “Do something, for pity’s sake!” and that may be part of the problem: pity is not the answer.
We see people making poor choices, and we want to make those choices for them. We see people hurting, and we want to ease the pain. But in reality, if we make their choices, then they never learn wisdom; if we ease their pain, then they never learn the lessons that discomfort can bring.
So rather than just jumping in to “rescue” and “fix it” and “save them”, I am proposing that we the church actually look to our Head for wisdom: “How would You like to meet this need, Lord?” Because none of us can claim to be more merciful than God, and certainly none of us can claim more wisdom than He. And because we’re damaging people by rescuing them unwisely.
So when we see people hurting, let’s stop and pray. Let's respond with the wisdom of God, not react out of our flesh.
I grew up in a mainline denominational church, where they taught me Bible stories both as a child and as an adult. Next to the stories, the priority was on knowing the traditions of the church. I was taught to interpret the Word of God through the filter of my denomination’s doctrine: the doctrine was right, and what I read in the Word was right if it agreed with the doctrine.
Then I spent a couple of decades in the evangelical church, where I learned to study the Word: learn the principles that the Word teaches, and sit under those principles. My doctrine is to come from the Word, and my life is to be conformed to the principles that the Word teaches me and I judge the events around me by those principles.
The first can be described as deductive learning (I relate to the Word as it supports my previously deduced beliefs) and the second as inductive (I sit under the Word, and it instructs me both in doctrine and in behavior).
I’ve come to the conclusion that both of those methods have some value, but are ultimately woefully inadequate. Their value comes with the fact that there’s something outside of myself that’s an ultimate standard, rather than my experience being the standard by which everything is judged (which is the value structure taught in public schools and popular culture today: truth is personal: what’s true for you may not be true for anybody else). Knowing doctrine or knowing the Word, and treating either as a standard, has value.
On the other hand, both are fundamentally knowledge, and there’s trouble with that. “Knowledge puffs up” teaches the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8:1). It doesn’t say “knowledge of non-spiritual things puffs up,” or “knowledge of things not true puffs up.” It says, “knowledge puffs up,” and my inductive study shows me that the Greek vocabulary use here (fusio/w: fusioi) means “to make arrogant or haughty.” So knowledge of doctrine and knowledge of the Word of God work towards making me arrogant or haughty. How many times have we run into websites from people who have their doctrine down, but who are characterized by arrogance? The Word itself teaches that this is the inevitable result of growing in knowledge of the Word.
The other issue is that building my life on principles has serious limitations. Principles, like laws, are fairly immutable standards to which we must conform human lives. Interestingly, disparate principles can be drawn from the Word (and we already know how much variety there is in Christian doctrine).
When I watch some of my favorite heroes of the Bible, particularly in the maturity they develop in their later years, I observe them in a completely different model. In Acts 27, I see Paul talking to the ship’s crew based on what an angel has said to him. In the gospel of John, I hear Jesus declaring repeatedly that He’s doing and saying what God says and does. In fact, while the gospels do announce His fulfillment of prophecy I’m not aware of a single place where the Son of God describes the scriptures as the standard by which He determines either His actions or His teaching. Yes, He obeys them (very well!), but He doesn’t present them as His standard to obey.
Now lest some think that I disparage the Bible, let me hasten to say: the Word is supremely precious, and it is the standard by which all else is measured. Jesus never acted or taught anything contrary to the Word (though He re-interpreted it often enough), and I aspire to the same: that everything I teach is grounded in the Word. I note that when He was tested in the wilderness, Jesus wielded the word against the enemy with great effectiveness! I love that model!
But ultimately, I don’t want to be led by my doctrine. And I’m ready to be done with being led by principles, as valuable as they are. I want to be led by the voice of God; I want my life to be built on relationship with my Daddy more than on the book He left behind.
Certainly – since He is immutable – anything I hear Him saying now must be judged by what He has already said: if I hear something that contradicts the Word, I’ve heard wrong, and I need to hear again. On the other hand, if I hear something that contradicts popular interpretation or application of the Word, then I may have heard correctly: I’ll certainly want to be careful.
It’s been said that following the Book without following the voice of His Spirit qualifies me to be a Pharisee, and following His voice without the Book is flakiness. There are a thousand caveats, disclaimers and principles I can add here which would doubtless be of some benefit, if only to calm the fears of those who have built their lives on knowledge, or those whom they have taught. But I really only want to communicate a single point today: following the voice of God is more valuable than even following the Book of God.