In one of C.S. Lewis’ published letters (I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t give the reference) he says something like this: “I’d rather pray for God’s mercy than His justice on my friends, my enemies, and myself”.
These days, by contrast, there is a strong movement to make justice, not mercy, the centre of the Christian faith. I have to say that I can totally understand this. There are millions (billions?) of people in the world who are victims of monstrous injustice, and the God we read about in the Bible has compassion for them and wants to change their situation. I have never been paid at a lower rate because of my gender, been denied rental accommodation because of my sexual preferences, or been forced to leave my country because of oppression and violence. If I had been through this sort of thing, I’m sure the cry of my heart would be for God’s justice – which, in my fallen sinfulness, would probably include God’s punitive justice on the perpetrators of these evils.
Nonetheless, despite all this, I still argue that the heart of the gospel is mercy, not justice.
James says, ‘Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who have not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement’ (James 1:12-13, NIV 2011).
The heart of the gospel is the story of a God who does not give us what we deserve, but what we need. The gospel tells a story of human beings – us – who rebelled against their Creator, chose their own way rather than the Creator’s way, and acted as if the whole earth belonged to them rather than to God. I continue to do this, even though I am trying to follow the Way of Christ. Far too often, I still act as if I am the main character in the story of the world, and everyone else in the story is a supporting actor, in the story for my benefit. I make myself in a host of ways the centre of the universe, rebelling against the true Centre of the Universe, the eternal God.
Justice would require that I be punished for my sins, but God has chosen not to demand justice. Instead, God came and lived as one of us, revealing himself to us in Jesus as a friend of sinners, as one who reaches out to undeserving people and loves them into the Kingdom. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32 NIV 2011), says Jesus. In love, he reaches out to tax collectors and prostitutes, to Roman soldiers and fishermen, to women and to children – and also to Pharisees like Nicodemus who were hungry for God, and to apparently wealthy people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus who were happy to welcome him into their homes. When Paul was searching for a word to describe the essential character of Jesus, he used the phrase ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 13:13 NIV 2011). ‘Grace’ is a Bible word that means love that you don’t have to earn or deserve; it comes to you as a free gift, not because you are loveable but because God is love.
Christians are essentially people who know their need of this grace. We are deeply conscious – or should be – of how far we have fallen short and continue to fall short. So we come to God each day with the cry, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and we are assured that God will give a favourable answer to that prayer. “Your sins are forgiven you” is one of the most characteristic phrases on the lips of Jesus in the gospels, and since Jesus also said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, we can be confident that this is a defining characteristic of God as well.
But what is the defining characteristic of a person who has received this grace from God? I would argue that it is a gentle attitude toward the sins and failings of others. We who have been forgiven so much ourselves know that we do not have the moral high ground here; we are ‘debtors to grace’, as the old phrase has it, so we need to extend that same grace to others. ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’, says Paul (Ephesians 4:31-32 NIV 2011). And we remember also Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), in which the servant who had been forgiven a huge debt by his king refused to extend that same forgiveness to the small amount he was owed by a fellow-servant. That story did not have a happy ending for the unmerciful servant.
I have learned over the years to look out for the signs of judgementalism and impatience with the failings of others in myself. When I find myself acting in that way, I have learned to ask myself whether I am truly believing the gospel of grace. Often, I’m not; in my head, I believe that God forgives my sins, but in my heart, I have slipped back into thinking that I have to achieve some sort of standard of goodness before I can be acceptable to God. And so I need a fresh touch of God’s healing grace to remind me that there is absolutely nothing I can do to make God love me more, and absolutely nothing I can do to make God love me less; God already loves me infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (as Philip Yancey puts it).
This is the story of God’s amazing grace; when I truly believe it, right down to the core of my being, then I can extend that same grace to others. When I don’t believe it – when I am impatience with the failings of others, judgemental toward them, perhaps even crying out for God to judge them, then I need to go back to what we used to call ‘the throne of grace’ and remind myself of my own deep need.
I’ll finish with a famous quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The words that are often quoted on this subject are the famous ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’, but the words I want to refer to come a few lines later in that speech:
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 mercy doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1).
Or, as James put it, ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement’. Therefore mercy is the heart of the Gospel and the heart of the Christian message.