Summary: Unstrained mercy needs to be constrained by the same constraints that God himself recognizes: by wisdom, by justice, by the long-term, eternal good of the person you are trying to help.
We’ve seen a lot about pardons in the news lately, haven’t we. Why did former President Clinton pardon Marc Rich? The “fugitive financier” is the nicely alliterative phrase that all the commentators use - I bet the journalist who coined the phrase is wishing he - or she - could get royalties. The largest tax fraud case in history, a 17-year fugitive from justice, a man who renounced his citizenship, a man living in billionaire luxury in Switzerland... Virtually all of the media coverage is negative; even most of his usually ardent supporters think this was a stretch. Some other controversies have arisen over the possibility of a presidential pardon for Jonathan Pollard, the man convicted of spying for the Israelis, and the Puerto Rican terrorists, to name a few. Pollard and the terrorists are in jail, suffering far more than Marc Rich. Was mercy part of the calculation for any of them? Or was it all politics?
Let’s go back a few years to the case of Tanya Faye Tucker... the convicted murderer who became a Christian while in prison. It was a terrible case, a terrible crime, if I recall correctly, involving axes and drugs. There was a tremendous outcry in the media urging then-Governor of Texas George Bush to issue a pardon. He did not, and she was executed - the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War.
Should he have shown mercy?
There’s a pretty strong correlation between forgiveness - pardons - and mercy. Scripture talks about them in the same way: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” is phrased in exactly the same way as, "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you ... for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." [Luke 6:37- 38] And it’s commanded for exactly the same reason: we are to be merciful and not to judge, to give and to forgive - because God will treat us as we treat others.
That’s a pretty tough standard to meet, isn’t it?
And it leaves us with several questions.
First of all, are mercy and forgiveness the same thing? If not, what is the difference?
And second, if God’s grace is free, why do we have to show mercy in order to receive it?
First, mercy and forgiveness are sometimes the same. They are one and the same particularly when it is God who is doing the forgiving.
Let me explain how it works. You see, mercy is both a response and an action. It is first of all a feeling of pity, a feeling of compassion, for the pain or suffering of another person. Mercy starts with a feeling. But then it goes beyond a feeling and moves to action. How often are we moved to pity when we see a photo or read a story of victims of war or famine or injustice, but go no further? And don’t get me wrong here - I’m not trying to lay guilt on anyone for not leaping up like Pavlov’s dogs whenever the bell tolls. It may be tolling for us, as John Donne said in that marvelous poem, No Man Is an Island, but it is not necessarily calling us to action. No one person, no one church, can meet all needs.
Anyway, mercy moves beyond feeling to action, to some action taken to ease the pain, to share the burden that the other person is enduring. And mercy is what God shows when he forgives us. God is moved to pity by the suffering of his people, even though most of it is self-inflicted, and he acts to alleviate our suffering. Just as he did during the times of the Judges, “when the Israelites cried out to YHWH, YHWH raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them.” [Judges 3:9] They deserved what was coming to them, for having forgotten God, for having disobeyed his commandments and run after other gods and mistreated their fellows. So in order to show them mercy, God first has to forgive them for the wrong they have done. And even when our suffering is due to another’s sin, God’s mercy still always includes forgiveness, just as it did when the Israelites in Egypt cried out and he answered - because even though they
didn’t “deserve” what the Egyptians were doing to them, they were still nonetheless offenders against God - because we all are. We can’t help it.
Sometimes, of course, when human beings show mercy, it is to someone who has wronged us. 15 years ago in Houston, a man named Ron Flowers accidentally shot school teacher Deirdra Washington through a car window during the course of a failed drug deal and was sent to prison for 35 years. Her family was consumed, destroyed by grief and anger. For 14 years Flowers continued to deny his guilt, and Dierdra’s mother Arna wrote vehement letters to Flowers' parole board each time his name came up for release. A few years ago, during a small-group session led by Prison Fellowship, Flowers confessed his crime and prayed that the family would forgive him. That same week, Arna Washington heard Deirdra's voice "say it was time to forgive and pray, that he [Flowers] was a brother in Christ, and that it was time to let go." She dropped her