By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dr. A. J. Cronin was raised in the strict tradition that if one did wrong they were to be punished. Justice demanded it. In 1921 he took the post of medical officer in an isolated district in Northumberland, England. He was young and inexperienced, but though trembling, he one night performed a tracheotomy on the throat of a small boy choking with diphtheria. He inserted the tube and gave a sigh of relief as the boy's lungs filled with air. He then went to bed leaving the sick boy in the care of a nurse.
Some time in the night the tube filled with mucus and the boy began to choke. Instead of cleaning the tube, as any good nurse should have done, the boy girl fled in panic to get the doctor. When Dr. Cronin arrived the patient was dead. His anger blazed at such blundering negligence, and he decided right there he would ruin her career. He wrote a bitter letter to the County Health Board and read it to her with burning indignation. The 19 year old Welsh girl listened in silence half fainting with shame and misery. But finally she stammered, "Give me another chance." He shook his head and sealed the envelope as she slipped away.
That night he could not sleep. Give me another chance kept echoing through his mind. Deep inside he knew he wanted to send that letter for revenge, and not because of his love for justice. When morning came the light of mercy came as well, and he tore up the letter. Twenty years later he wrote, "Today the nurse who erred so fatally is matron of the largest children's home in Wales. Her career has been a model of service and devotion."
Mercy, even on the human level, has saved many lives from being tragically wasted because of some sin, error, failure, or folly. None are so godlike as those who can exercise the virtue of mercy. In Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice old Shylock wants revenge through justice, but Portia disguised as a young lawyer pays her tribute to mercy and says, "It is an attribute of God Himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice." And then she says again, "Consider this-that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation; we do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy."
Shakespeare not only understood the teaching of Christ that the merciful are blest, but he understood the truth that David learned as well; that mercy is the only hope for the guilty. There is no salvation for anyone in justice. Justice leaves us all condemned, but mercy opens the door of hope and gives us another chance. That is why David begins this great Psalm with a cry for God's mercy. There is nowhere else to begin. God's mercy is the only hope for the salvation of the sinner and the sanctification of the saint. If you take a concordance and look at all the references to the mercy of God, you will soon understand why Andrew Murray called it the greatest wonder of God's nature. He wrote, "The omniscience of God is a wonder. The omnipotence of God is a wonder. God's spotless holiness is a wonder. None of these things can we understand. But the greatest wonder of it all is the mercy of God. Mrs. Helen E. Hammond wrote,
The great celestial bodies are
Most marvelous and grand,
And how they keep their courses
Men cannot understand.
But something far more wonderful
Than stars that brightly glow
Is the mercy of the living God
To creatures here below.
The basic meaning of the words for mercy in the Bible are kindness, loving kindness, and graciousness. The Psalms deal so much with the mercy and loving kindness of God that the Jews have always made this theme a major aspect of their songs and prayers. In the 12th century the Jews in Spain sang a hymn on the Day of Atonement, and it sounds very much like the opening verse of this Psalm.
Lord, blot out our evil pride,
All our sins before thee;
Our Father, for Thy Mercy's sake
Pardon, we implore Thee.
The Jews have always recognized that their hope is in God's mercy, and over and over again they sang that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. Psa. 25:10 says, "All the paths of the Lord are mercy." His mercy is not only everlasting, but it is also universal. Psa. 145:8-9 says, "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that he has made." Both the Psalmist and the prophets explain God's mercy by saying He is slow to anger. This is a very important thing to grasp to understand how God can be so merciful and still be a God of justice. The Bible makes it clear that in spite of God's all-encompassing mercy He is also a God of judgment. How can the two be combined? It is all a matter of speed. His mercy moves swiftly and gives the sinner every chance to repent and be forgiven before His slow moving wrath ever reaches the sinner.
Spurgeon, in a sermon on Nah. 1:3, which says the Lord is slow to anger, explained it with these eloquent words: "When mercy cometh into the world, she driveth winged steeds; the axles of her chariot wheels are glowing hot with speed, but when wrath cometh, it walketh with tardy footsteps; it is not in haste to slay, it is not swift to condemn. God's rod of mercy is ever in His hands outstretched; God sword of justice is in its scabbard, not rusted in it-it can be easily withdrawn-but held there by that hand that presses it back into its sheath crying," sleep, O sword, sleep, for I will have mercy upon sinners, and will forgive their transgressions."
God is not quick to destroy rebels, for he knows that many can be brought back to loyalty and allegiance. If He was speedy in His judgment, none would be saved. It is the combination of His swift mercy and slow justice that makes salvation possible. Because of this combination God's judgment is never unfair. Mercy is always given first chance, but if mercy is rejected, then no one can complain when justice catches up and does its work.
All through history we see God gives a warning before His wrath falls. People were warned through Noah long before the flood came. Israel was warned in advance by the prophets before she faced judgment and captivity. Nineveh was warned by Jonah before God's anger struck, and because they responded with repentance and cried out for mercy they were spared. When the warning is not heeded, however, and when the offer of mercy is not received, God, with all His loving kindness, cannot spare the sinner. Jesus said of the evil working Jezebel, who was destroying the church at Thyatira in Rev. 2:21, "I gave her time to repent, but she refused to repent of her immorality." There was no alternative but judgment. We see that the Lord even spares the worse just as long as He can. He reverses the pattern of nature and sends the thunder of warning long before the lightening of judgment. Heaven is God's will, and He is not willing that any should perish, but when mercy is refused then judgment is inevitable. Hell is the destiny men choose for themselves because they reject the mercy of God.
Mercy and justice are perfectly combined in God so that one or the other deals with all evil. Mercy is the alpha and justice is the omega. In our impatience we often wish God's judgment was not so slow. Like Jonah we want God to destroy the wicked pagans before He gives them a warning and an offer of mercy. Mercy sometimes seems almost like a crime when it is offered to one that you think is deserving of wrath. David felt this way when the prophet Nathan told him of the rich man who took the poor man's only lamb and killed it for his meal. David was not like God, but just the opposite. His sense of justice was swift, and he was ready to reek immediate vengeance on the wicked man. He only reverse his rush toward revenge when Nathan said, "Thou art the man." David then realized that he was the scoundrel whose sin had made him so mad.
When he saw that he was the one under condemnation, then mercy became far more precious than justice. We tend to want justice for the other guy, but mercy for ourselves when we are the ones who are guilty. The truly godly man will learn to love mercy for everyone. God required that the godly man combined mercy with justice just as God combines it in His nature. Mic. 6:8 says, "He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" The degree to which we succeed in showing mercy and loving kindness determines much as to the mercy we receive from God. Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." Someone wrote,
Teach me to feel another's woe,
To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show
That mercy show to me.
It is tragic but true what George Eliot wrote, "We hand folks over to God's mercy and show none ourselves." True godlike mercy is both a feeling and a matter of action. As an emotion mercy is the desire to pardon one who deserves punishment. It is that feeling parents get when their children do something so wrong that it deserves severe punishment, and yet there is a desire to pardon because they love their children. As an act of the will mercy is doing good for and forgiving one who deserves punishment. How many mothers have had children make a mess of something that called for a spanking, but who not only didn't spank them, but in order to let them get in one something they have planned, even cleaned up the mess? That is mercy in action.
God does not sit in heaven with feelings of mercy, but He enters into history to act in mercy to get men to respond. Charles Finney in his Systematic Theology says of mercy, "It will employ the intelligence in devising means to serve the repentance of the sinner, and to remove all the obstacles out of the way..." This is what made God give His Son, and His Son give His life while we were yet sinners. Mercy does not wait. It is ever busy seeking to save the lost. Finney says, "It is also this attitude that energized in prophets, and Apostles, and martyrs, and saints of every age, to secure the conversion of the lost in sin."
As important as mercy is in God's plan, and in the Christian life, it is a problem for most Christians. Life refuses to stay simple, and instead becomes complex, and this is so with the virtue of mercy. How do you prevent people from taking advantage of your mercy? People try and do this with the mercy of God, but we know they cannot fool Him. If men call upon God to forgive their sin, and then go and willfully engage in it again, they do not deceive God. The man who said, "I love to sin and God loves to forgive sin, and so we have an excellent relationship," has no understanding of the mercy of God. As this Psalm makes clear, if there is no broken and contrite heart, then mercy is rejected. The proud sinner is not forgiven.
When we look at men's attempt to imitate God in kindness and mercy, however, we see that it seems to give evil an advantage over the good. For example, a young boy was pushing a cart of goods up a steep hill and a stranger came along and helped him. When they got to the top the man got his breath and said indignantly, "Only a scoundrel would expect a youngster to do a job like that. Your employer must have known it was to heavy for you." The boy said, "He did, but he said go ahead, your sure to find some old fool who will help you up the hill."
Do-gooders and those who show kindness and mercy are often considered to be fools, for they let people take advantage of them. Evil men who do not respond to mercy only take advantage of it to continue their sin. Pardon the offender and they use their freedom to commit more offenses. There is also the sentiment expressed, "He that is merciful unto the bad is cruel to the good." Total and absolute mercy seems to give evil a break, and so the Christian needs to learn to balance mercy and justice just as God does. Jesus said in Luke 6:36, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." Only as we understand the mercy of God can we obey the command to be merciful as He is, and then reap the rewards for doing so.
God hates sin more than any person, and His anger is to be feared. God's attitude is that sin and evil must be overcome and conquered. By sheer power He could destroy them, but this would be inconsistent with His love and mercy. God's primary goal is not to see that men are punished, but to see that they are saved. A bandit in Mexico was asked if he had any enemies, and he said that he had none because he had shot them all. God could have taken this approach also, but that is a mere victory of power, and not a victory for love.
God will punish the sinner, but before He does He seeks all possible ways to win the sinner, or the lost sheep, back to the fold. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. This has ever been God's program of mercy. One of the first questions of the Bible is God asking of Adam, "Where art thou?" From that point on the Bible is the story of a search. It is the search of God for all possible means to confront men with His mercy. God knows we are but dust. He knows the folly and sin of man, and the advantage they will try to take of His love, but yet it is true what the poet writes,
There is no place where earth's sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth failings
Have more kindly judgment given.
God so loves His people, and all people, that even when He is forced to send judgment on them His primary thought is on how to restore them. When He falls out with man it is something like the attitude expressed in a cartoon. Two junior high girls were walking home from school when they saw Gregory on the other side of the street. One nudged the other and said excitedly, "There's Gregory!" The other girl responded, "Oh, we're not speaking anymore. I've lost all interest in him. We haven't spoken for three days, six hours, and 23 minutes." She may have been angry, but she counted the minutes until they were reconciled. So it is with God and man. In Isa. 54:7-8 God said to His people who had suffered His judgment-
"For a brief moment I forsook you,
But with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment I hide my face from you,
But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you."
God does not treat sin lightly, and so no one can make a fool of Him. He will judge and condemn, but He is ever seeking a way to reconcile a sinner and grant them a merciful part. The wicked man is welcome on his dying day to say yes to God's mercy. A man fell from his horse and broke his neck. He cried out for God to forgive him before he died. These words were put on his tombstone: "Between the stirrup and the ground I mercy asked, I mercy found." If we are going to be Godlike in mercy, then we must recognize that is does not mean we never judge or condemn sin, but it means that even when that is necessary we do not write off the offender, but do all we can to be reconciled.
There is always hope for the worst of men to respond to love. All of us are combinations of love and hate. We are like the girl who got mad and ran away from home. She left this note: "Dear mom, I hate you. I'm going away. Love, Linda." The reason our conscience bothers us when we do wrong is because we really do love what is right. You hate it for bothering you, but it bothers you because you love it. The conscience is one of God's agents of mercy. He made it to bother us when we do wrong so that we feel sad and in need of mercy, which He stands ready to give.
It was God's mercy that brought David to the point where he cried out for mercy. The sinner cannot be forgiven until he prays, "God be merciful to me a sinner." When he does so he does not gain any merit, for it is God's mercy that makes him so pray. Some poet put it,
"I sought the Lord, and afterwards I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
'Twas not so much that I on Thee took hold,
As Thou, dear Lord, on me."
The hope of the world is not in justice, but it is in the mercy of God and the mercy of man for his fellow man. Memorial Day got its start in mercy, on an April morning in 1863 a group of women came to the cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi to dedicate the graves of their dead soldiers. The Civil War was still raging. One of the women placed flowers on the graves of her two sons, and then walked over to two mounds at the corner of the cemetery. One of the women asked what she was doing because those were graves of union soldiers. "I know," she said. "I also know that somewhere up in the North, a mother or a young wife mourns for them as we do for ours." She faced the other women and continued, "They are dead, our heroes of the South, and they are dead, these unknown soldiers of the North. All of them are lying here in our churchyard. When the war is over and peace comes, we shall call all of them heroes. We want someone to do this for our loved ones in nameless graves. We must do it for these in our cemetery." She put flowers on the graves of these so-called enemies.
The story made its way to the New York Tribune, and then across the country. It was the beginning of the effort to replace hatred with love. In 1868 General Logan issued an order designating the 30th of May as a day to decorate the grave of all who had fallen in war. This Declaration Day became our present Memorial Day. It all began with the loving behavior of a mother and an act of mercy. We live in a world of so much evil and conflict. As Christians we need to be the salt of the earth and keep negative emotions from dominating the way people respond to all this evil and conflict. This can only be accomplished as we experience an express mercy.