The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians: Mercy
Matthew 5:1-2, 7
Until recently, Apartment #213 on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin was an anonymous place. Now it is universally known as “The Flat of Horrors.” It seems that each day’s newspaper unfolds a new chapter in Jeffrey Dahmer’s twisted and torrid attacks upon innocent people. Yet somehow the one picture in that whole sordid story which I cannot forget is the picture of the mother of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. Weeping over her lost son, she cries out over and over again: “What shall I do with this anger? What shall I do with this anger?”
Good question. What is she going to do with her anger? Or for that matter, what are you and I going to do with ours? You see, sooner or later in our life’s experience, we learn that life is not fair. Sooner or later, we learn that we can do our best and be our best and still get kicked in the teeth. Sooner or later, we learn that we can dress right, act right, think right, do right, and still get treated badly. Sooner or later, we learn that there are Jeffrey Dahmers in the world who even if they do not mangle or mutilate us physically, they do it emotionally or mentally or spiritually. What do we do with that anger?
Remember the old saying? We’ve said it a hundred times: “Your hurts will make you bitter or they will make you better.” That’s true. But unfortunately it seems to me that, in too many instances, bitterness appears to be winning the game. So many lives today seem to be marked by anger, resentment, vengeance, grudges, hatred and hostility. The “milk of human kindness” has curdled and turned sour.
It’s like the joke about the fellow walking along the beach who happened to find, washed up on the shore, an old Aladdin’s lamp. He picked it up, rubbed it, and out popped a genie. The genie said: “Because you have set me free from that lamp I will grant you three wishes. But there is one condition. Whatever you ask me for, I will give you, but I will also double it, and give it to your worst enemy.” The fellow didn’t care much for the condition, but he decided to try it out. He said: “I wish I had a new car.” The genie said: “Consider it done, but your worst enemy now has two brand new cars in his driveway.” That made it rather bittersweet for this fellow, so he decided to up the ante. He said: “I wish I had a million dollars.” The genie said: “Consider it done. Of course, remember that the man you hate the most now has two million dollars.” Well, that was about more than this fellow could stand. He didn’t like it at all. So after he thought about it for a few minutes, he said to the genie: “I think for my third wish I’d like for you to beat me half to death!”
Isn’t that the way we are? In trying to get even, who gets beat up? Who gets the lumps and the bruises? My friends, mark it down. Revenge does not work. Getting even does not solve the problem. Angry eyes, flying fists and bitter words do not heal the hurting heart. Only mercy can do that. That’s the message of the fifth Beatitude. Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Of all the Beatitudes, this fifth one is probably the most appealing to us and the one which is easiest for us to understand. Mercy is attractive. It is a virtue that shines. We hold it in high regard. We endorse it. We affirm it. We applaud it. And in a time like ours, a time when anger and bitterness and resentment seem to be on the rise, we need to build into our everyday experience the mercy of which Jesus speaks.
I’d like to give you three reasons why that is true. Resentment agitates your agitation, while mercy soothes your spirit. Resentment ruins your reputation, while mercy demonstrates your discipleship. Resentment jeopardizes your salvation, while mercy determines your destiny. Take them one at a time.
Resentment agitates your agitation, while mercy soothes your spirit.
In Matthew 5, Jesus said: “O how near to the heart of God are those who are merciful for they shall have mercy shown them.” Later on in Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus told a parable to make the point. It was the story of a servant to the king who amassed a debt to the king in the millions of dollars. No way could the servant repay it. He pled for mercy from the king. The king felt sorry for the man, so he cancelled the debt and let him go. He didn’t put the man on an installment payment plan. He didn’t demand that he work it out or off. He didn’t even say: “Give mewhat you can and we’ll call it even.” He let the servant walk away scot free. Now as the servant was leaving, so the story goes, he chanced to meet a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed the man and began to choke him, demanding immediate payment of the debt. When the fellow servant begged for mercy, this man who had been forgiven so much, gave none.
Such vindictiveness is a mark of our own time as well. I read the other day about a bank in San Francisco which is marketing personalized checks with a distinctly Californian flair. For an extra fee you can have a favorite photo printed on your checks. One man bought a set of these personalized checks to be used only for make his alimony payments. The checks featured a picture of the man in a passionate embrace with his new wife! Stupid, isn’t it, what resentment and bitterness can lead us to do.
Then I read about a millionaire who inherited a small piece of property in an exclusive residential area. The problem was that the lot was only a couple of yards wide and a hundred feet long. The only thing to do with such an odd-shaped piece of property was to try to sell it to one of the neighbors on either side. Both neighbors offered him far less money than he thought the property was worth. He was incensed. He decided to get even with the two neighbors by building a house on that narrow strip of land, thus ruining the value of their property. He hired an architect and a contractor and built one of the strangest houses ever conceived. It was just five feet wide and one hundred feet long. He actually moved into this most uncomfortable place and lived there for years—a bitter man in a self-made prison of revenge. The house is called to this day “The Spite House.” You see, there’s something about anger, about agitation, about resentment, about grudges that brings out the worst in us. Woe be to the woman who lives with a man who is holding a grudge. Woe be to the man who has to Eve with a woman who is carrying yesterday’s anger.
What this world needs, my friends, is a heavy dose of mercy. Mercy means reaching out in love and concern to meet the needs of others. Mercy means having power over someone who has injured you but refusing to exercise that power. Mercy means condemning evil but redeeming the evildoer. Mercy means giving other people the benefit of the doubt. Mercy means never saying that because someone failed that person is a failure. That’s why mercy is so soothing to our spirits.
It means doing for others what God has done for us—saying: “I am not going to hold anything against you, no matter what.” If you don’t do that, it’s just going to agitate your agitation.
And resentment ruins your reputation, while mercy demonstrates your discipleship.
In the parable that Jesus told in Matthew 18, He notes that when the man who had been granted mercy by the king refused to be merciful himself, the other servants saw what happened and they turned on this fellow. Other people do see, don’t they? They see how we treat people. They see how we act toward others. And nothing can destroy a person’s reputation like being labeled as a harsh and bitter person.
An incredible story was told in a book by Bellamy Partridge called Country Lawyer. It was the story of a young Presbyterian minister named Duncan McLeod and a farmer named Phineas Dodd. True story. 1880’s. Upstate New York. Drought. Farmland parched. Farmers worried. The young minister, Rev. McLeod, got the idea of calling the whole community to a prayer service. Everyone came except Farmer Dodd. He dismissed the idea of praying for rain as foolishness. As the service began, the sky was clear. The air was hot. The people began to pray. An hour later, clouds appeared. Two hours, a gusty wind. Three hours, the temperature dropped. Four hours, the rain began to pour and the fields were drenched. Oh, one more thing happened. Lighting struck the barn of Farmer Dodd and burned it to the ground. Phineas Dodd was enraged. He actually filed suit in court against Rev. McLeod for the destruction of his barn. He was determined to destroy the young minister. It was a three day trial. Finally, the judge ruled in favor of Rev. McLeod saying: “He prayed for rain, not for lightning.” Phineas Dodd jumped up and screamed at McLeod: “I’ll get even with you! I’ll take this to a higher court.” But Farmer Dodd never carried out his threat because he was so busy harvesting the bumper crop that came from the rain. Of course, Farmer Dodd did harvest a bountiful crop but he also harvested a miserable reputation that followed him for the rest of his miserable life.
Anger and bitterness can make us blind to our blessings. They can alienate us from other people. They can hurt our reputation. And if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, your reputation is valuable. If you call yourself a Christian and people see you treat other people with bitterness and resentment and harshness and hostility, then they will write you off as a miserable excuse for a human being. You can’t call yourself a follower of the God of grace and mercy while refusing to give grace and mercy to others. It is not right to wear both the name of Christ and a face of anger at the same time. Resentment ruins your reputation, while mercy demonstrates your discipleship to Jesus Christ.
Then resentment jeopardizes your salvation, while mercy determines your destiny.
God will forgive anyone anything except the one who won’t forgive anyone anything. Let me say that again. God will forgive anyone anything except the one who won’t forgive anyone anything. The message of the fifth Beatitude is that if we do not give mercy to others then we cannot expect to receive God’s mercy for ourselves. The message of Jesus’ parable is the same. When the king heard that this man he had forgiven had then refused to be forgiving of someone else, the king had the man thrown in jail. In other words, Jesus is saying that if you want forgiving from God and you can’t forgive someone else who needs forgiving from you, then forget about the forgiveness you want. Take away the eloquence and the elegance of the King’s English and what Jesus is saying is this: if you refuse to forgive other people, if you refuse to extend grace and mercy to them when you are expecting forgiveness and grace and mercy from God, then you can go to hell. My friends, I’ve studied this fifth Beatitude backwards and forwards, upside down and right side up, and like it or not, that’s what it says. If you don’t give mercy, you can’t get mercy.
So do something merciful today. Take a step. Write a letter. Make a call. Speak a word of grace, mercy, and forgiveness to someone who needs to hear it. If you can’t do that, then start to pray for that person. If you can’t pray for that person, then at least stop cursing the person. If you can’t stop cursing the person, then stop plotting his or her death. Stop something. Do something. You may not be able to do it all today, but take a step. I believe that Jesus Christ in the fifth Beatitude is calling you to do that today. O how near to the heart of God are those who extend God’s mercy to others, for they in turn shall have God’s mercy shown them!
Let me wrap this up by telling you about a sailor named John. He lived in England in the eighteenth century. He first went to sea in his early teens. By the time he was 21, he had much experience but little discipline. He mocked authority. He ran with the wrong crowd. He indulged in all the sinfulness a seafaring life could afford. He ridiculed the religious and poked fun at the moral. He became intrigued with the lucrative possibilities of the slave trade in Africa. He began to make money by capturing and abusing and selling other human beings. He took command of a slave ship called the “Greyhound.” One night in the midst of the Atlantic, the “Greyhound”, laden down with a human cargo, encountered a fierce storm. For nine hours, John and the other sailors worked desperately to keep the ship afloat. Finally, when John’s hopes were even more battered than the ship, he threw himself on the storm-tossed deck and cried: “Lord, have mercy on us all.” John didn’t deserve mercy, but he received it. The “Greyhound” survived. John never forgot God’s mercy shown him on that tempestuous night in the roaring sea. He returned to England where he began to compose songs. We sing his words, like these:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see!
The slave trader-turned-songwriter was John Newton. He also became a powerful preacher, and for fifty years he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, extending God’s mercy and grace to others. Near the end of his life, someone asked him about his health. He confessed that his powers were failing. “My memory is almost gone”, he said, “but I remember two things: I remember that I am a great sinner and I remember that Jesus is a great Saviour!”
My friend, if those are the only two things in life that we remember, then that is enough…