Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Merciful action in the fellowship of those who have received mercy is thus creaturely, spiritual, affective labour. What form does it take? Here the tradition may help us with its list of the seven corporal works and the seven spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harbouring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to captives, burying the dead as the corporal works; instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubters, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs with patience, forgiving injuries willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for others as the spiritual works.
Mercy in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume II, Virtue and Intellect, John Webster
Our children will say, ‘That’s not kind,’ to anything that makes them or their sibling sad. We try to guide their thoughts about this, which is especially difficult when you’re sucking snot out of a baby’s nose as happened this past week. Although those words and ideas belong to our kids, the idea is quite common in the world around us. Kindness, mercy you could say, is seen as anything that makes either the giver happy or the receiver happy. This is actually an unhealthy kind of mercy that only sometimes is merciful. Feel free to read any of the many books on the subject, ‘When Helping Hurts,’ or ‘Toxic Charity,’ or the movie ‘Poverty, Inc.’ et. al. I appreciated Webster’s listing of the classical categories. However, he warns against making mercy the center of the church’s fellowship with these words: ‘There is a loss sustained by placing mercy at the centre of the Christian fellowship.’ Why? Because God himself ought to be the center of our fellowship.
He lists three things that I think are helpful to share here. First, these merciful works ‘emerge from a particular perception, namely that need and deficiency are intrinsic to the fallen human condition.’ We are merciful because we have been shown mercy, and God’s mercy to us is shown most sweetly in saving us from our fallen condition. ‘Second, works of mercy are directed to the totality of human existence in its oppression and misery. Mercy is corporal and spiritual.’ It is not merciful to offer bread but not living bread, but perhaps we could say, it would not be merciful to share the gospel to a woman dying of hunger, but not to give her the bread in your hand. Both … And. ‘Third, works of mercy are directed to all in need, not simply to those with whom we may enjoy a special affiliation.’ I have tried to emphasize this in my time at All Nations because it is often so hard to go beyond those with whom we have a special affiliation. But what about those who are not like us, not in a similar stage of life, who are single, widowed, a youth, etc.?
In reflecting on showing mercy, I wonder if the traditional list of merciful acts gives us traction to our merciful acts. We show mercy because of the great mercy shown to us in Christ. It is not our first act because that is an act of contrition and faith and it is not even our second act since that is worship. Instead, being merciful is one characteristic that defines redeemed humanity. It seems to me that politics drives us to the dry well of despising others, even those suffering. I find that the difficulties involved in showing mercy to others drives us to be cynical. I find that in our hidden pride, we do things that seem merciful, but in fact direct praise to ourselves and not God. I find that in the multiplication of things perceived to be merciful, we are hindered from actually being merciful. If most things are merciful, where do I even start?
So I really appreciate defining showing mercy as providing for what is lacking because of our fallen state. The list is quite pertinent. On the one hand, it almost seems harder. How do I know if the panhandler is homeless, hungry, thirsty or the like? When I used to volunteer at shelters or the Marie Sandvik Center, you at least knew the need, and those organizations provided the basic corporal needs of food, clothing, and shelter for the night. It is interesting to add visiting the sick, ministering to captives and burying the dead. These are important but forgotten acts of mercy. People still die in our day, but funeral costs don’t seem like a merciful thing. But we could remember that there is a very strong Christian tradition and habit to provide for Christian burials for those who can’t afford it, because it is merciful. I think I remember either ‘Destroyer of the Gods’ or 'The Patient Ferment of the Early Church' talking about the importance of the Christians burying their own in the Roman Empire. And in our pandemic worn world, we have forgotten that it is a mercy to visit those suffering from sickness. Plague used to regularly pass through towns before our modern age. And Christians used to nurse those suffering from whatever plague it was, and ministers were also on the front lines. In our day, this is a professional business, and so is prison. And so tending to simple needs of the sick and imprisoned is a forgotten art.
But we can’t leave it at the physical level. The spiritual acts of mercy are just as important. Both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are spiritual acts of service for the Christian because they are done in the power of God’s Spirit. For those whom God, through the work of Christ in the power of the Spirit has made alive, our works of mercy are defined by the mercy of God shown to us and by the merciful work of the Spirit in our lives and so we show mercy to others reflecting that divine work. But the spiritual acts of mercy are perhaps even more joyful when done in coordination with God’s work. Where we may give a man bread but still leave him in his miserable self-destructive state, instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubters, and admonishing sinners points others to their only hope of freedom from themselves. It is amazing to compare our world to Russia under Stalin and Lenin, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, or Congo under Leopold I. We are so free financially, socially, religiously, and in almost every other way. But, somehow we still suffer, often terribly physically, psychologically, and spiritually. We all need these spiritual acts of mercy because we still carry with us this body of death and are working our way out of this sin sick life into a life holy and devoted to God. In bearing wrongs with patience, forgiving injuries willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for others, we are dying to our fallen self and growing into our sanctification, and our confession then coordinates with our acts.
What then should we do? We should be careful not to take the burden of the whole world on our shoulders. This is only a work Christ can do. Second, we have to remember that acts of mercy are not salvific. Third, we must realize there are more people in our immediate environment who are in need. It is so easy to see suffering across the world and hire out merciful acts without ever lifting a finger to show mercy to our neighbor, friend, fellow isolated church member and the like. Finally, let us cherish what mercy God has shown us in the gospel, and let our love then overflow into showing mercy to others.