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.


Rob and Crys said...

Ray, I really enjoy reading your posts, though I never comment. They always make me stop and ponder like I am supposed to do.

Paradox said...

I look at mercy and meekness as the easy answers to an easy question: should we be good?

It's when you take that question to the next level, should we ALWAYS be good, that the situation gets interesting and the answers aren't so clear. I was reading Fahrenheit 451 and one of the themes that struck me was the importance of being a criminal when it allows you to do the right thing. Situations in the scriptures that also present this situation are also very striking because they stand as examples of when God breaks his own rules--proving that we should not always expect easy questions with easy answers in this life.

I guess that's why I tend to look at words like "kindness," "virtuous," "lovely," "merciful," and "meek," and I scoff a little because I have to ask... What does any of that even MEAN anymore?

Papa D said...

Paradox, I never said we ALWAYS have to be "good" - just that we are commanded to be meek and merciful. It is possible to be both meek and merciful even while "being a criminal".

Take Nephi's killing of Laban. He was meek (kind and gentle) in a very real way when he killed Laban quickly by cutting off his head. With everything that Laban had done to Nephi and his family (theft, false accusation, attempted murder, etc.), it would have been "natural" to kill Laban slowly and with glee. It also would have been "natural" to assume that Zoram had to die, as well. In a very real way, Nephi was "meek and merciful" in the way he killed Laban AND in allowing Zoram to live.

More to a modern example, one can refuse to obey or follow an unrighteous parent or spouse (being "bad" based strictly on a narrow definition of the commandment) but still be meek and merciful in the way that one interacts with that parent or spouse - by not yelling and screaming back, by not condemning even while being harmed, by turning the other cheek and refusing to fight back.

One can steal food in order to stave off starvation and not steal everything - causing starvation for another - and not condemn the one from whom the food was stolen for not sharing freely and removing the need to steal in the first place.

In other words, the foundation attitude of meekness and mercy can exist even amid objectively "bad" actions. The key, imo, is that these **exceptions** not be used as excuses to change the rule.

Mama D said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts. Contrasting "soft answers," "hard answers," and "no answers" elaborates on the concepts of mercy and of "turning the other cheek." Thanks for sharing your insights.

Patty said...

I always look at mercy from a parent's standpoint- I have every right as a parent to inflict whatever punishment I deem necessary for my child's disobedience (punishment, not abuse), but I am also fully in control of how much mercy I extend. I think it's often a fine line we walk in trying to find the balance between punishment and mercy. Too much of either can have bad results, but I don't think there is a worry about being too meek in either case.

Papa D said...

That's a wonderful example, Patty.

adamf said...

"Being meek means reacting with kindness"

This principle is, perhaps, the most important aspect in a satisfying relationship. I've mentioned him before, but John Gottman talks a lot about the damage that defensiveness can do to a marriage (defensiveness is obviously NOT reacting with kindness). With every day occurrences in life, nondefensiveness (or meekness) is of supreme importance. Another scripture reference related to this is in Alma (I think) where it meekness is described as being "easy to be entreated."

To me, mercy can be useful in relationships as well, it is just not needed as often.

Unknown said...

Meekness is my weakness. (LOL. That's got a nice ring to it.)

I think that, because I am far from meek myself, I am always supressing the urge to be not-meek in my interactions with others, and therefore my ability to "reprove sharply" as proscribed by the passage you alluded to is severely impaired as well. Thank you for this post.