God didn’t send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:17
Loving a person just the way they are—that’s no small thing. That’s the whole thing. – Sara Groves
During the course of church-led advocacy trainings I attended over several years, we often did an exercise that went something like this: list all of the mission activities that our local congregations engage in. Then, identify which ones were acts of mercy (or service) and which were acts of justice. Acts of mercy, leaders would explain, were those that alleviated present suffering; acts of justice were those that strove to impact the system, rooting out the cause of suffering, rather than place a band-aid on them.
The leaders were clear that both types of ministry were needed, but what the exercise usually revealed is that churches are much more ready and willing to engage in the acts of mercy than they are in acts of justice. There are several reasons for this, of course. Service activities are often more concrete, tangible, and achievable. Agreeing on a vision of justice—and then how to pursue it—is more difficult, and it often takes a lot longer to get to a “win” or substantive change.
I disagree neither with this assessment nor with the leaders’ desire to get more congregations involved in social justice work. But I do wonder if such an exercise doesn’t oversimplify what is involved in acts of mercy. For mercy, at its core, concerns the state of the heart. It is—according to Webster’s—compassion and forbearance toward those who have offended or are in distress. Mercy is more than providing a service; it is opening up one’s self to hear the cries and perspectives of those whose plights we may never fully know or understand. It is withholding judgment for the sake of love.
I will confess, I’m not that good at this. Or, more precisely, I struggle to extend mercy as a first response before a, “well, why would they do that?” or “that’s not supposed to happen!” enters my thoughts (or escape my lips!). Not only are such thoughts unhelpful to those in need of mercy, they don’t do much for my soul either. To quote another Sara Groves song, “Sometimes it’s not about you—what is and what is not your style. Would you fight your demons for me once in a while?”
For many of us, extending mercy means fighting the demons: demons that are quick to judge or to offer excuses as to why it’s not our job (or our turn) to soften our hearts. Demons that let us rest self-assured in our own worldviews, political camps, and algorithmic bubbles. Demons that blame those in need of mercy instead of awakening those with the power to extend it. And as we’ll see on Sunday, even Jesus wrestled how thankless the act of extending mercy can be.
The organizing exercise may be illustrative, but it also pits mercy against justice, when the two are meant to go hand in hand. There is no justice without mercy for those who suffer and those who seek their uplift. There is no communal transformation without a first, internal revolution—which includes mercy extended to the self. And surely, we would not be here at all were it not for God’s mercy, extended anew every morning (Lam. 3:22-23).
May God’s mercy be upon us as we fight the demons, that we may instead do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our merciful God.