Monday, May 19, 2008

The Difference Between Mercy and Kindness

I was struck yesterday by the difference between mercy and kindness.

If I had not focused on meekness earlier this year, when I defined meekness and where I discussed being gentler with the ones we love, I probably would have defined mercy in terms of being kind. However, as I thought about it yesterday, it hit me that "mercy" is more than being kind and gentle - in a very important and fundamental way.

Meekness includes gentleness and benevolence - which includes kindly generosity. Being meek means reacting with kindness - by being gentle in your response to others. For example, meekness is the central concept in Proverbs 15:1 - where it says, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." In other words, meekness comes into play whenever something needs to be done or said by mitigating the harshness that naturally would accompany a "rebuke" and helping us "say this as gently as possible".

Mercy, on the other hand, encompasses "soft answers" (since they do not "inflict harm" to the same degree as "hard answers"), but it goes beyond meekness in that it often requires us to give no answer at all - to inflict no harm, even to the more minor degree that a meek response would cause. It requires us to "turn the other cheek" - an act of full mercy (not striking back although "justified") NOT merely meekness, as I have assumed previously. In this way, someone can be meek (gentle and kind) without being merciful (fully non-judgmental and understanding and forgiving), but it is impossible to be merciful without being meek.

Let me use one example from the life of Jesus to illustrate this point - and to show that meekness and mercy are required of us fully ("of you it is required to forgive all men" - D&C 64:10), but they are not required always of a righteous judge. When Jesus cleared the temple, He was neither meek nor merciful. He acted forcefully and dispensed justice energetically. He was able to do so "righteously" for two reasons:

1) As the designated God of this creation - the divine representative of the Father, He had authority over the temple which had been built as His house. He was the "Master of the House" in the fullest sense.

2) As the Eternal Judge, he had the authority to administer justice - literally to choose whatever action was "correct" for that situation. He could see the big picture and "judge righteous judgment".

There are times, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, that we may act with neither meekness nor mercy - when we may "reprove betimes (once in a while) with sharpness (precision)" - since these instances explicitly are directed by a member of the Godhead. All other times, when we are not acting through direct communication from deity, we must strive to be either merely meek or truly merciful - by inflicting as little harm as possible through gentleness and kindness or no harm at all through mercy. That is a fine line that must be drawn, I believe, in each and every instance - which is one reason why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is so critical to our progression and growth.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Forbearance to Inflict Harm: A Practical Application of Mercy

As I have continued to think about and try to practice being more merciful, something struck me that I had never considered previously. This might be short, but I think it is important. At least, it has been enlightening for me.

Being merciful might be categorized initially as being willing to forgive, but I think it is more fundamental than forgiving. Remember, one of the core definitions of mercy is "forbearance to inflict harm when one has the power to do so" - and I think there is a fundamental difference between forgiving and not harming. I think that we often focus so much on the first one (forgiving) that we sometimes forget about the second one (not harming) - and the thought that struck me is that forbearance to inflict harm must occur BEFORE true and total forgiveness can take place.

This is because "forgiveness" is focused on the offending person and is, as all who have been offended understand, a process. In order to "forgive", one must first be harmed in some way - but, more fundamentally, one must recognize that one has been harmed. Someone can harm me (and do so to a great degree), but if I am not aware of it (like instances of libel or slander that do not come to my attention) I cannot "forgive". Forgiving requires an understanding of harm, and requires an extension of mercy - by not demanding punishment that would constitute justice. In other words, if I am unable to extend mercy by forbearing to inflict harm when it is in my power to do so - and when it is "justified", I will be unable to forgive. This, in turn, will make me a bitter person - which will compel me to continue to judge and withhold mercy - which usually, if not always, will be done unrighteously (not in accordance with God's understanding and will) - which will, therefore, place me outside God's own mercy for my own transgressions. Only if I offer mercy to others will I be able to "obtain mercy" from God.

Forgiving what someone does to me requires that I proactively do something for them - extend the hand of mercy and not strike back. I have never considered "turning the other cheek" as an application of mercy, but this puts it squarely as a merciful act. This puts a new and compelling twist on the scripture I have read many times in my life but never seen quite this way:

"For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still." (Isaiah 5:25) I have read compassion in this verse (and others that use the same statement), but I have never framed it in terms of mercy. Each instance describes instances when the people of Israel have done things to reject their Lord, and each instance mentions the anger of the Lord at this rejection and the "just" result of that rejection. However, each verse ends by saying that His "hand is stretched out still".

The footnotes to Isaiah 9:12 (which contains the same phrase) provide the following additional clarification:

"IE In spite of all, the Lord is available if they will turn to him." This is mercy at its most basic level.

In the grand scheme of things, being merciful might be the clearest, most practical way to define and understand forgiveness. If you truly have forgiven, you will not seek or do anything to inflict harm - either physical, financial, emotional or spiritual. You will, in a very real AND figurative sense, "turn the other cheek".

PS. This also points out something I have said often - that we cannot forgive someone who has not harmed us. It is demeaning to the person who truly has been harmed for me to claim to forgive the person who caused the harm if I was not harmed by that person. It is "cheap" or "easy" forgiveness, and it is destructive - specifically because it mocks the suffering of the harmed and makes her struggle to extend mercy and forgive seem like something that should not be so difficult. Claiming to forgive someone who has not harmed me is like claiming authority to absolve a criminal without the power of one who has been given the authority to administer mercy or justice. In a very real sense, it is a form of taking the Lord's name in vain, as it assumes His title as Judge without the actual authority of judicial assignment. (See my last post about judging not that ye be not judged.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

"Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged"

I want to repeat the definitions of mercy cited in my previous post and discuss the implications of each one briefly. I think this will be a relatively short post, but it has hit me pretty hard as I've considered it this week. I am going to change the emphasis just as bit from the last post; instead of focusing on mercy itself in the definitions, I am going to focus on the human employment of mercy - "being merciful".

Mercy is:

1) leniency and compassion shown toward offenders by a person or agency charged with administering justice;
2) Forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it.

These definitions make it clear that there are two distinct situations where "mercy" can be appropriate: when someone has authority to administer justice and when someone has the power to inflict harm - especially when harm is "justified" under provocation. It is the difference between "inflicting harm" and "administering justice" about which I have been thinking - and how that relates to being "merciful" and being "just".

The first situation requires a legitimate judge - someone who has been "charged with administering justice". We are told in scriptures that we are not judges, and in our own local congregations it is the bishop, and only the bishop, who has been thus "charged". Therefore, becoming more merciful applies to most of us only in the second sense of the word - "forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it."

Why is this?

I believe it is because not one of us sees everything that must go into a "righteous judgment" clearly enough to make such a judgment. "Righteous" means "right with God", so a righteous judgment would be one that is consistent with what God would judge, knowing all the facts perfectly (completely and wholly). Since we "see through a glass darkly", we must err on the side of mercy and not "inflict harm" whenever possible. God, however, sees "face to face", so He is able to "judge righteous judgment". God can be "just"; our natural man cannot be "just"; our only hope of judging righteous judgment is to be in tune with the Holy Ghost, so that we can discern the will of God.

Bishops are able to act as judges in Israel specifically because they have been "charged with administering justice" - have been given the keys of discernment, if you will, to know what actions to take that would be consistent with the will of God. This is the main reason that disciplinary actions can vary so radically, even when the "objective facts" seem to be similar or even identical. There is SO much more that cannot be seen that affects what is truly "just" in each situation, so Bishops have latitude in many instances to recognize the differing will of God in seemingly similar situations - to administer justice through apparently contradictory actions.

One final point:

"Leniency" and "compassion" need not be administered only in extremes; they are not measured necessarily as all or nothing. The natural result of sin and transgression is a separation from the Godhead. Anything that lessens that separation - that allows it to be shortened in duration or lessened in intensity - can be seen literally as an application of leniency and compassion. If, for example, someone's actions have placed them in a position such that never-ending separation is "just", temporary excommunication can be merciful - as can disfellowshipment or probation.

In summary, our core beliefs include the concept that we, as regular, common members, have no right to judge others and inflict harm upon them - if it is in our power to forgive and not inflict harm. (Obviously, there are exceptions, as in cases of physical protection of ourselves and others.) Rather, our challenge is to allow those who have such a charge to exercise the authority they have been given and apply whatever level of leniency and compassion is appropriate in each situation to match the will of God.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Becoming More Merciful

It's May, so my resolution for the month is to become more merciful. As has become my custom for the initial post on each topic, I am going to dig a bit into the meaning of the word itself - "merciful".

First, from the Bible Dictionary:

"Mercy" is not defined in the Bible Dictionary, but "Mercy Seat" is - and the definition provides some interesting points of consideration. The definition says, "The golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was the place of the manifestation of God’s glory and his meeting place with his people (Ex. 25: 22; Lev. 16: 2; Num. 7: 89); and was regarded as the Throne of God (cf. Ex. 30: 6). Here the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16: 14-15)."

About "The Ark of the Covenant", the description includes the following - "It was the oldest and most sacred of the religious symbols of the Israelites, and the Mercy Seat which formed its covering was regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Jehovah . . . The usual resting place of the Ark was in the Holy of Holies. ("Also called Most Holy Place. The most sacred room in the tabernacle and, later, in the temple as contrasted with the Holy Place.")

So, the "Mercy Seat" was seen as the place where Israel's God lived while he visited His people, housed within the "Most Holy" room in the temple, and sprinkled with the blood that symbolized the Atonement.

This means that "mercy" is connected intimately with the Atonement, is associated with how God manifests his glory and represents how He "meets" us. Frankly, my mind is spinning a bit right now, as I have not considered this type of definition before now. I have a feeling this paragraph alone will be the basis of more than one post this month.

From, the definitions of "mercy" that best fit the scriptural foundation of the Mercy Seat are:

1) leniency and compassion shown toward offenders by a person or agency charged with administering justice;
2) Forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it.

The opposite of "mercy" is "justice" - which is "the administering of deserved punishment or reward".

From these definitions, it appears to me that the Mercy Seat was so named to make it obvious to the House of Israel that their interaction with God was conditioned on His willingness to not treat them as they deserved to be treated - to share His glory with them, even though it was not theirs to have naturally - to "forgive them their trespasses" and dwell with them even in their fallen and undeserving state.

As a foundation, therefore, if I am to be more merciful ("acting with mercy"), at the most fundamental level I must bridle my natural reactions to punish or administer justice when people do not measure up to what I believe they "should" do and treat them better than I believe they "deserve" to be treated. It is important to note, just as with the other characteristics I have been striving to develop, that this might be grounded in feeling and understanding, but in order to be truly internalized it must extend to action - to becoming more merciful by acting more mercifully.

I want to dig deeper into the interplay of mercy and grace, but this foundation is enough for me to consider for a few days at least - especially, for example, how it relates to my interaction in the world of blogging.