Saturday, April 24, 2010

Charity: The Relationship Between Behaving Unseemly and Meekness

[This week as I have continued to ponder charity and not behaving unseemly, particularly as I have thought about the aspect of unseemly behavior I outlined last week from Romans 14, something I wrote almost exactly two years ago about being more merciful has weighed on my mind once again. Therefore, I am re-posting it this week in lieu of a "new" resolutions post]:

As I have continued to think about and try to practice being more merciful, something struck me that I had never considered previously. Considering it more deeply has been enlightening for me. [both then and now]

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 - that his anger is not turned away. 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".

[As a post-script, I only will add that not behaving unseemly fits this same category of an active expression of mercy - by not doing something that is in one's power to do for no reason other than love and concern for others whose standards are different than your own.]


Anonymous said...

I relate to this,and have experienced the change of heart involved in choosing not to inflict harm on those who have hurt us.

However,I do understand the necessity of justice under the law in order for civilisation to be encoded.Therefore,it could be seen as one's civic duty to seek justice within the law.It seems to me to be a very tall order indeed to seek justice within the law without having a sense of vengeance.I guess there are some remarkable human beings who do manage this.

Papa D said...

Great point, Anon. There is a difference between "justice" (which absolutely is necessary in civil society) and "vengeance" (which should be different than and divorced from justice).

I don't do purely political commentary very often here, but one of my biggest problems with the way "civil justice" is approached by many is the conjoining of justice (the requisite reaction to an action) and vengenace (the punishment emotion demands). For example, when a victim's family is allowed to speak at a sentencing hearing, IF those spoken words impact the sentence, vengeance has robbed justice. "The law" should be blind to vengeance (emotion-based reprisal) and deal strictly with justice (what reaction is requisite to another action).

We, on the other hand, when working "outside the law" (in cases where the civil law has not been broken) are required to tuen the other cheek and forgive all men - and that is not an easy thing.