God is merciful, and I am not.
That is one of the most important conclusions I’ve reached after years of theological wrangling and Bible study. In fact, it’s the mercy of Jesus that often caused the greatest amount of friction between himself and the religious leaders of his time.
I don’t think you can deny the mercy of God in the story of scripture, but the challenge often becomes how to apply that mercy today. I mean, God does get around to judging people at the end of time and all, right?
But whatever form that judgment takes, it’s also abundantly clear that Jesus would really quite rather we spend our time showing mercy to others. He framed his ministry as the work of a doctor healing the sick. He even prevented religious authorities from stoning a woman after she committed adultery—an act that they could have easily backed up with chapter and verse.
God patiently sent one prophet after another to tell the wayward Israelites: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In other words, learn to be merciful and you will be obedient. Don’t use your obedience as an excuse to abandon mercy.
As I try to sort out what God’s kind of mercy looks like today, I’ve often heard those who self-identify as more “biblical” or “gospel-centered” accuse me of reinventing God in my own image. By seeking to be merciful, I’m going soft on people because it’s what I want rather than what God and scripture teaches. If God had his way with me, I’d go around shoving the faces of sinners into the chapter and verse for everything.
This accusation is both annoying and frustratingly inaccurate. How dare they mistake me for a merciful person!
I’m just about the most stodgy, rule-following, judgmental person there is. I would love to point the finger at other people than deal with my own issues. Really. It’s super easy to find other people to criticize and judge. It makes me feel amazing because all of these other jokers set the bar so low that I can’t help but look like a religious super hero.
And if I could get God to see things my way, he’d also let me slap more people. Nothing harmful or abusive. Just a little, “HEY! GET IT TOGETHER!” They do this thing on television and the movies all of the time, and I think I would be really good at it in real life. If God let me slap more people like that, I think I would exercise restraint and there’d be a ton more people who would “get it together” faster.
At the very least, all of my slapping would ensure that people wouldn’t go around making ridiculous assertions that people who speak of mercy are remaking God in their own image. I assure you, the vast majority of us are not. I’d love to be more judgmental, to set up stronger boundaries, and to ensure I exist in an echo chamber of ideas that never leave me challenged or uncomfortable—what some may call a “remnant.”
I could be wrong. Maybe the slapping approach isn’t the best way forward. I’m willing to admit that.
While I can admit my slapping plan may have flaws, I wonder if those who accuse the merciful of reinventing God in their own image could ask themselves the same question: “Are we also inventing God in our own image?” That’s not a comfortable place to be. Maybe getting slapped doesn’t sound so bad now, amirite?
As I read the story of scripture, I don’t see people who struggled to judge others. If anything, God’s people struggled time and time again to be merciful. The people who received mercy direct from Jesus failed time and time again, calling down fire from heaven, writing off the blind as sinners, and trying to protect their turf when casting out demons. Mercy was anything but natural for them.
What if those most prone to judgment are just as likely, if not more likely at times, to be inventing God in their own image?