That twice-blest gift: On giving and recieving mercy

I wish you all a beautiful Sabbath Day! I am sharing with you my remarks from sacrament meeting this morning on giving and recieving mercy in our lives.

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they than mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

These are the beautiful opening verses of Christ’s Sermon in the Mount. What makes them feel so true, and bring us such a profound peace? I want to point out two reasons that I find them so awe-inspiring. First, they completely contradict the common wisdom of the world that we breath in every day. Have you ever seen meek as a character trait in any self-improvement regimen? And would any lawyers have jobs if we were all content being poor in spirit and merciful? Second, many of these traits are unexpected for a list of ones you think God would refer to as “blessed.” This is not “if you keep this commandment, you will receive this blessing”, and it doesn’t easily reduce itself to a checklist mentality. Being blessed, by Christ’s own word, isn’t a meritocracy.

Blessed are the poor in spirit recommends to us the self-effacing publican over the proud Pharisee and the humble widow tossing in her mite over the well-to-do churchgoers filling the coffers.
Blessed are they that mourn recommends to us to those who are most vulnerable over those who have become past feeling.
Blessed are the meek refers to those small and simple things by which great things come to pass.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness reminds us that our righteous desires– even when we are imperfect– bring us closer to God.
And blessed are the merciful reminds us that it is only by giving mercy that we can fully realize Christ’s Atonement in our lives.

publican_pharisee

 

It is this specific attribute– mercy– that I would speak to you today. And I would speak of both halves of the coin: both giving and receiving mercy.

Giving Mercy

Mercy is divine. But it is a divine attribute that can be attained. Many of you are familiar with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this play, the protagonist Antonio bargains with a moneylender Shylock for a loan, but the contract has the unfortunate stipulation that should be not be able to pay by the appointed time, he must instead pay with a pound of his own flesh. When the loan comes due and he can’t pay it, Shylock insists on collecting his due. As tensions rise in the court, the judge describes the blessings of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, 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. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Why can it be so hard for us to give up what we see as our rightful dues? Perhaps we have never insisted on a pound of flesh, but we daily insist on maintaining an air of moral uprightness and superiority, or we have a very clear vision of what is fair that we hold sacrosanct. On my ride to the bus station every morning, I drive on a two-lane road. And every morning, there is a driver who just can’t take my relatively slow pace, moves into the lane of oncoming traffic, and speeds past me. I vent all sorts of angry thoughts out against this vile speed demon, who you would think had committed a sin next to murder by the feelings I harbor against him.

Another example: the other day, I was waiting at the bus stop. A man walks up, gives me a push and a rude “move!” as he tries to get the posted bus times. I was a little irritated, but I ignored him. Then, he turns and asks “Where does the 571 come?” I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come here, and I’m not familiar with that line so I answer that I don’t know, and that I don’t think it comes here judging by the posted routes. He snaps back: “Did I ask you what buses come here? No, I didn’t, so just shut your mouth!” As he left, another bus passenger sympathizing with me responded: “Some people!”

These are two small negative examples of where I have sought to be more merciful. Perhaps the man in the car would never know that I had let go of my angry feelings towards him. And perhaps the other man would have only yelled at me more if I tried to get a few more words out. But if we want to live in a world where we don’t take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we need to start in these small and simple things. One example Elder D. Todd Christofferson shared from the book Les Miserables is the kind of mercy I would like to reflect in my own life:

Near the beginning of the story, Bishop Bienvenu gives food and overnight shelter to the homeless Jean Valjean, who has just been released from 19 years in prison for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Hardened and embittered, Valjean rewards Bishop Bienvenu’s kindness by stealing his silver goods. Later detained by suspicious gendarmes, Valjean falsely claims the silver was a gift to him. When the gendarmes drag him back to the bishop’s house, to Valjean’s great surprise, Bishop Bienvenu confirms his story and for good effect says, “‘But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?’ …

“The bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice:

“‘Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.’

“Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop … continued, solemnly:
“‘Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’”

Jean Valjean indeed became a new man, an honest man and a benefactor to many. Throughout his life he kept the two silver candlesticks to remind him that his life had been redeemed for God.

Receiving mercy

Our greatest example of mercy is Jesus Christ, from whose hands we all receive mercy. When visiting the Nephites, he said, “Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.

His hand is stretched out all the day long, and he never will turn us away.

In one parable, Christ taught just how much mercy he is willing to extend. I would like to quote Elder Holland’s account of the parable of the two debtors:

A servant was in debt to his king for the amount of 10,000 talents. Hearing the servant’s plea for patience and mercy, “the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and … forgave … the debt.” But then that same servant would not forgive a fellow servant who owed him 100 pence. On hearing this, the king lamented to the one he had forgiven, “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?”

There is some difference of opinion among scholars regarding the monetary values mentioned here—and forgive the U.S. monetary reference—but to make the math easy, if the smaller, unforgiven 100-pence debt were, say, $100 in current times, then the 10,000-talent debt so freely forgiven would have approached $1 billion—or more!

Jesus uses an unfathomable measurement here because His Atonement is an unfathomable gift given at an incomprehensible cost. That, it seems to me, is at least part of the meaning behind Jesus’s charge to be perfect. We may not be able to demonstrate yet the 10,000-talent perfection the Father and the Son have achieved, but it is not too much for Them to ask us to be a little more godlike in little things, that we speak and act, love and forgive, repent and improve at least at the 100-pence level of perfection, which it is clearly within our ability to do.

We as Latter-Day Saints sometimes struggle though understanding the depth of that mercy and grace towards ourselves and towards others. We can be painfullly aware of our inadequacies and our guilt, and too often we get caught in the game of keeping up with the Jones’. We also take great pains of maintaining an identity that is separate from the world, and by so doing can unintentionally become condescending and unmerciful towards others who don’t believe according to our own will and pleasure. To give one example from my own mission, I was teaching a young student who was an enthusiastic member of a born-again Christian church. When discussing Christ’s redeeming power, the student gave us missionaries an example. He said that Christ grace was like a lifesaving tube tossed to us on a stormy sea saving us from drowning. Sensing what I felt to be an erring doctrine and feeling a rising sense of endearing condescension, I clarified: “Yes, but we can’t be saved unless we reach out and grab it. We still have to do something.”

We Mormons are careful to explain that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”, you can’t get something for nothing, and we almost have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that pegs grace above works in the scales of God.

As another example, I remember on seminary class where, the teacher playing devil’s advocate, asked us what percentage of our salvation was from us and what percentage was from Christ? We played the game for quite a while, trying to whittle it down to some fraction of a percent. If Christ took all 100%, what were commandments for?

I think we inherit some of this fear from a strong Protestant background in America, our own sort of “traditions of our fathers.” For example, when Brigham Young first read D&C 76 and heard that all would inherit a kingdom of glory, it did not go over well:

Some outside observers scoffed at the newly revealed doctrine. One Christian newspaper responded to “the Vision” by sarcastically claiming that Joseph Smith sought to “disgrace Universalism by professing . . . the salvation of all men.” But more disconcerting to the Prophet were the reactions of some Church members.

“It was a great trial to many,” Brigham Young remembered. “Some apostatized because God . . . had a place of salvation, in due time, for all.” Young himself had difficulty accepting the idea: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education. I said, Wait a little. I did not reject it; but I could not understand it.” His brother Joseph Young also confessed, “I could not believe it at first. Why the Lord was going to save every body.”

But perhaps it’s not all our Protestant forbears. Alma himself from the Book of Mormon seems to put limits on the work of mercy in the famous scripture:

What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.

Taken out of context, that does sound like a clear win for works against grace. But you have to remember who Alma was. Alma has one of the most powerful conversion stories ever. Alma was the one going about seeking to destroy the Church of God. He later considered himself one of the “vilest of sinners.”  But in a supreme moment of grace, an angel appeared, chastising him and knocking him out for three days. During that time, he has a vision where he accepts Christ. He says:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

Why don’t we all get an angel to set us straight?

Alma’s conversion story is one of the most powerful examples of Christ’s grace in the Book of Mormon. Alma knows personally how much he relies on Christ, that Christ preserves him day by day and lends him breath. It cuts away at the false dichotomy of grace and works. Christ ransomed us entirely– and in that sense, his mercy accounts for “100%” of our salvation. Our works are a sign, a token of the change within us.

God is merciful. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. But neither is God a grandfatherly man with a beard handing out salvation like lollipops. In LDS scholar Fiona Givens’s The Christ Who Heals I have found my favorite example of explaining the disposition of God towards us:

God’s reputation has suffered wild pendulum swings throughout Christian history. As we have surveyed, we find the sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath, and we find at the other extreme an indifferent God who will “beat us with a few stripes” and then award us all heavenly bliss. To use another analogy, some have seen God as a stern schoolmaster. He sets the standards, we take the test, and few of us pass. Only occasional A’s are handed out, while for most of us, slack and mediocre as we are, a perpetual detention is our destiny.

At the other end of the spectrum, some protest that the only alternative is a saccharine-steeped schoolmarm of a God who indulges her students, pats them sweetly on the head, and gives everyone an A in the end. This is the God of cheap grace, who tells us to eat, drink, and be merry, and expect at most a light caning before we are automatically saved in the end. In fleeing the God of wrath, some have found refuge in this version of the ever-indulgent God.

These options constitute a false dichotomy. We should not think they are the only alternatives. In this book, we are arguing for a third way, because our scriptures and our prophets alike have suggested both views are wrong. We believe our Lord is, rather, the persistently patient master teacher; he is the loving tutor who, devoted to his students, remains with us, staying after class for extra lessons, giving us individualized attention, practicing sums again and again, late into the night, for as long as it takes—until we master the material. And we are transformed in the process by his “long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.”

Worshiping such a loving God, can we try to not be so hard on ourselves or on others? To borrow a passage from another scripture, if we know we are living our lives with a sincere heart and real intent, and are anxiously engaged in a good cause, God will be there to tutor us, to show unto us our weakness, and to help make weak things strong unto us. We should be setting righteous goals, we should be accountable to ourselves and to God in daily prayer, and we should do everything we can to avoid the lethargy of routine worship and daily living.

Let us take time every Sabbath day to ponder the profound depths of Christ’s mercy, as expressed in the hymn:

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!

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