Scandalous Mercy (wherein is expounded the difference between unmerited favour and favour despite evil; how one is a greater scandal to my self-righteousness)

When I was much younger and only beginning to really explore the Christian faith, I remember creating an abridged version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Strongly reformed, even the 1962 Canadian version of the standard prayer book for Anglicans bore strong overtones of the reformation that gave voice to the original prayer books of King Edward 480 odd years ago.

It’s a little long, I felt it needed an abridgement.

In my youthful exuberance to critique what I saw as an outdated and largely unhelpful faith that I was raised with, I and some friends created an “abridged” version of the book, in hopes of getting a few laughs and impressing the minister’s daughter. It read something like this (this was more than 25 years ago):

“Dear God, we’re really really bad, please forgive us, even though we suck, because of Jesus, Amen.”

Steve Dawe Authorized recollection, Canadian Book of Common Prayer (abridged)

Now, way back then, I thought I had levelled the most amazing and witty critique of the faith of my fathers possible. I believed I was brilliant in only the way a late teenager with a few months of university education could. Even then, I knew that the sentiment I was summarizing from the BCP was out of keeping with what modern enlightened people understood.

Flash forward to just this morning, when I read the news that former Christian leader Joshua Harris announced that he no longer considered himself a Christian. To be honest, I’m not near enough the guy to comment on it, but one phrase in his missive struck me with the memory of my youthful critique of several thousand years of Christian theology. He said “I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace”.

I’m glad I learned that one a few years before Harris. You see, I had no problem with the Christian idea of grace, even in my mostly pre-Christian days. The unmerited favour of God has never really caused me issues, and I have come to love it even more as I’ve been led to embrace what the reformed wing of Christianity (of which Harris was a leader) has called “the doctrines of Grace”. In fact, now that I think about it, as someone living in the modern west, I live in a culture based on the grace of people around me (at least for the moment).

While law and order ostensibly keep the peace, most of the goodness done to me day in and day out is because of the civil niceness that we as a society give to one another (law being the last resort when civility fails). We function by showing favour to one another, and I have done nothing to merit the favour paid to me. Grace (unmerited favour) is part of the assumed grounding of the culture I am a part of. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of it in the world around us, and that no group has the market cornered on it.

No, the scandal of Christianity is that we believe not merely in Grace, but also in mercy. Mercy here is defined as the way in which those who have every right to treat us poorly don’t, and instead treat us with the unmerited favour (grace) listed above. To accept grace makes no claims about the person receiving the grace, save that I have no right to the goodness being offered me. To accept mercy however is to accept also that what I really deserve from those being kind to me is their wrath.

That is hard to accept on a few levels, especially in a culture like ours, based so fundamentally on unmerited goodness being shown to one another. In the first place, it means that we don’t have a right to good things being done for us (hard, when we’re so used to it, we think that people being civil to us is our right). In the second place, it means that bad things should properly receive bad responses; if I am bad to someone else, I can (and should) expect some level of opposition in response. Finally, and most importantly, it means that I’m not fundamentally a good person. Even those of us who claim Christ are not better in any real sense (even as we are being sanctified by the work of God, who changed us to desire God instead of desiring evil), rather we are objects of God’s mercy; a mercy we need to show to others.

Christians, as much as anybody else, muck this up. This is where we get the self-righteousness that so often plagues Christian Churches. Mercy being the most heinous ideas to the self righteous. Unlike grace, mercy is a reminder of how we are not better than those we seek to castigate, merely different. Mercy means that there is a standard of goodness that we not only do not meet, but actively work against. Mercy means that I cannot look to other sinners, even the unrepentant ones, and think them more horrible than me. God saved me when I was His enemy and had only the right to expect His punishment.

As with most things, God puts this better than I can in His book (here written through the Apostle Paul:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 

Romans 5:6-11, ESV

I’m really really bad, and God forgives me because of Jesus, and I can know He forgives me because of Jesus, and now I can enjoy His unmerited favour (Grace) with no fear, and show both mercy and grace to those who do me wrong, even as I seek to show grace to all.