The Bible is pretty clear about the importance of mercy. Jesus said in Mat 5:7, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In Mat 7:1-2, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” In Mat 9:13, Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
These clear statements echo the warning found right after the Lord’s prayer in Mat 6:14: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your
Mercy is not optional. As our prayers our heard, God compares our level of faith with our level of mercy. Notice what happens to a prayer that might lead to a miracle, if there is no mercy, in Mark 11:22-25: And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Mercy has a very high priority, as Jesus points out in Mat 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. If we took this command of Jesus seriously, our sanctuaries would empty out for all time, for no one would be finished with the task of mercy and forgiveness such that they could be free to return to worship. And, no, the preachers would be no exception!
Yes, we need to forgive others. Note the condition Jesus gives in the command above, however: it’s not that you need to be out making peace and showing mercy until you’ve forgiven every one whom YOU think has harmed YOU. You need to be out there making peace and showing mercy until EVERYONE OUT THERE who has something against you has been reconciled.
Mercy is not about someone who’s on your list to forgive … mercy as Jesus desires it is about whether you are one someone else’s list. It seems like an impossible condition. Preachers, for example, ALWAYS have someone upset with them for all kinds of reasons because people have high expectations. Even a preacher with a high level of mercy gifts would still be out there providing forgiveness and mercy and not be able to return to the temple. And in fact, God keeping this instruction, would not be in the temple either, because when anyone, anywhere, has a complaint about anything, God is on THEIR list. So God would not be in the temple in heaven, but would have to come down here to spread forgiveness and mercy among all those people who are upset with God … and now we get the point. Leaving the temple where God meets our needs to show mercy and forgiveness is exactly like Jesus leaving heaven to be incarnated on earth.
At no point in the argument is it suggested that our brother or sister is justified in having anything against us, just as no one is justified in blaming God for their troubles. We do not go to them because they are right in their complaint, even though sometimes they are. We go, because when we go to spread mercy and forgiveness, we are like Jesus.
So how does God teach us how to have mercy? It’s not a natural human tendency.
The method is simple: God teaches us mercy by giving us a family to love us. Because along with the love and all the other good stuff, comes all sorts of irritation because people are people, and people are imperfect. If you love someone, you will have plenty of opportunities to learn how to be merciful. Conflict is inevitable, and will be inevitable as long as people are less than perfect. Just as you can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, all you need to start a fire in a church is two people interacting. Conflict is inevitable.
Conflict is inevitable when people are honest. That’s the temptation that causes us to avoid genuine fellowship – be dishonest. We are tempted to slip back into what M Scott Peck called “pseudocommunity” – phony fellowship – by being dishonest with each other:
In The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace, Scott Peck argues that the almost accidental sense of community that exists at times of crisis can be consciously built. Peck believes that conscious community building is a process of deliberate design based on the knowledge and application of certain rules. He states that this process goes through four stages:
- Pseudocommunity: The beginning stage when people first come together. This is the stage where people try to be nice, and present what they feel are their most personable and friendly characteristics.
- Chaos: When people move beyond the inauthenticity of pseudo-community and feel safe enough to present their “shadow” selves. This stage places great demands upon the facilitator for greater leadership and organization, but Peck believes that “organizations are not communities”, and this pressure should be resisted.
- Emptiness: This stage moves beyond the attempts to fix, heal and convert of the chaos stage, when all people become capable of acknowledging their own woundedness and brokenness, common to us all as human beings. Out of this emptiness comes
- True community: the process of deep respect and true listening for the needs of the other people in this community. This stage Peck believes can only be described as “glory” and reflects a deep yearning in every human soul for compassionate understanding from one’s fellows.
More recently Peck remarked that building a sense of community is easy but maintaining this sense of community is difficult in the modern world.
As we move through the stages from phony, Pseudocommunity, through Chaos and Emptiness, to the genuine true Community, note that the level of exasperation increases … until exasperation with others overwhelms us and we find ourselves in a state of emptiness and genuine despair. And in that state of genuine despair that others will ever learn how to be in relationship we us, we are overwhelmed and we surrender … we give up … only to find that we are now in a state of mercy and forgiveness toward others. This is mercy and forgiveness as a way of life. It’s how you are, after the surrender of your self and striving to achieve your needs. You can only learn mercy and forgiveness as a way of being through the cycles of exasperation that come from being genuinely honest and involved with other people.
The Purpose Driven Life: In real fellowship, people experience mercy. Fellowship is a place of grace where mistakes aren’t rubbed in, but rubbed out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice. We all need mercy, because we all stumble and fall and require help getting back on track. We need to offer mercy to each other and be willing to receive it from each other. You can’t have fellowship without forgiveness.
True fellowship is not pseudocommunity, but genuine community, where people can be themselves and still be loved … just as we can be honest to God, and be ourselves and still be loved. True community is the relationship to grace that we have vertically with God, only turned sideways, so that we can have it with other people.
What about abusers? The Purpose Driven Life recognizes that there is a difference between forgiveness and trust, past and future. Forgiveness is about the past, and what was done with us in the past; forgiveness never involves a requirement that we allow someone who abused us in the past to abuse us in the present or in the future. Forgiveness is a letting go of the past, even the past of a minute ago. Trust is something that people have to earn, and should be allowed to earn. Withholding trust until people earn it is a part of the challenge to grow that exasperates others and helps them to grow.
The second reality about abusers and true community: in a true fellowship, people are honest with each other. This means that someone who is cruel and abusive is continually made aware of their abusiveness, either in confrontation or by the simple, open display of the pain that they have caused. Abusers are abusive because they are able to separate their awareness from their behavior by the use of denial – they are dishonest about their abuse. In fact, one of the purposes of pseudocommunity is to provide an environment of dishonesty where we do not need to experience or notice our sinfulness as we deal with other people – a way to interact with people that hides abuse and the harm that we do to each other as human beings.
Note the characteristics of each stage in this quote from Peck’s book, The Different Drum, as we would move from pseudocommunity through chaos and emptiness into community, in Peck’s own descriptive words:
Pseudocommunity: For many groups or organizations the most common initial stage, pseudocommunity, is the only one. It is a stage of pretense. The group pretends it already is a community, that the participants have only superficial individual differences and no cause for conflict. The primary means it uses to maintain this pretense is through a set of unspoken common norms we call manners: you should try your best not to say anything that might antagonize or upset anyone else; if someone else says something that offends you or evokes a painful feeling or memory, you should pretend it hasn’t bothered you in the least; and if disagreement or other unpleasantness emerges, you should immediately change the subject. These are rules that any good hostess knows. They may create a smoothly functioning dinner party but nothing more significant. The communication in a pseudocommunity is filled with generalizations. It is polite, inauthentic, boring, sterile, and unproductive.
Chaos: Over time profound individual differences may gradually emerge so that the group enters the stage of chaos and not infrequently self-destructs. The theme of pseudocommunity is the covering up of individual differences; the predominant theme of the stage of chaos is the attempt to obliterate such differences. This is done as the group members try to convert, heal, or fix each other or else argue for simplistic organizational norms. It is an irritable and irritating, thoughtless, rapid-fire, and often noisy win/lose type of process that gets nowhere.
Emptiness: If the group can hang in together through this unpleasantness without self-destructing or retreating into pseudocommunity, then it begins to enter “emptiness.” This is a stage of hard, hard work, a time when the members work to empty themselves of everything that stands between them and community. And that is a lot. Many of the things that must be relinquished or sacrificed with integrity are virtual human universals: prejudices, snap judgments, fixed expectations, the desire to convert, heal, or fix, the urge to win, the fear of looking like a fool, the need to control. Other things may be exquisitely personal: hidden griefs, hatreds, or terrors that must be confessed, made public, before the individual can be fully “present” to the group. It is a time of risk and courage, and while it often feels relieving, it also often feels like dying.
The transition from chaos to emptiness is seldom dramatic and often agonizingly prolonged. One or two group members may risk baring their souls, only to have another, who cannot bear the pain, suddenly switch the subject to something inane. The group as a whole has still not become empty enough to truly listen. It bounces back into temporary chaos. Eventually, however, it becomes sufficiently empty for a kind of miracle to occur.
Community: At this point a member will speak of something particularly poignant and authentic. Instead of retreating from it, the group now sits in silence, absorbing it. Then a second member will quietly say something equally authentic. She may not even respond to the first member, but one does not get the feeling he has been ignored; rather, it feels as if the second member has gone up and laid herself on the altar alongside the first. The silence returns, and out of it, a third member will speak with eloquent appropriateness. Community has been born.
The shift into community is often quite sudden and dramatic. The change is palpable. A spirit of peace pervades the room. There is “more silence, yet more of worth gets said. It is like music. The people work together with an exquisite sense of timing, as if they were a finely tuned orchestra under the direction of an invisible celestial conductor. Many actually sense the presence of God in the room. If the group is a public workshop of previous strangers who soon must part, then there is little for it to do beyond enjoying the gift. If it is an organization, however, now that it is a community it is ready to go to work-making decisions, planning, negotiating, and so on-often with phenomenal efficiency and effectiveness.”
Pseudocommunity allows abusers to be comfortable in their interactions with others, and describes perfectly the characteristics of a dysfunctional family. Honesty, however painful at first, eventually creates an environment that an abuser could not tolerate unless they are willing to experience the results of their abuse. They will run from an honest view of themselves.
God says to us all. come out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus Christ. Let everyone see you as you really are, sinful as you are … it won’t matter, because these sins revealed will all be washed away.
Some quotes in italics are from Day 18 of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
The long quote in italics about M Scott Peck’s four stages of community is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community. The quote from M Scott Peck’s book, The Different Drum, is from here: http://evelynrodriguez.typepad.com/footnotes/2010/11/stages-of-community-building-by-m-scott-peck.html
The photo is by cheerfulmonk, courtesy of the Flickr Creative Commons License, and can be viewed at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8185675@N07/3633152013/