Mercy cannot get in where mercy goes not out. The outgoing makes way for the incoming….
But the demand for mercy is far from being for the sake only of the man who needs his neighbor’s mercy; it is greatly more for the sake of the man who must show mercy.
Last week, I wrote about justice and how it is a cure for many of the evils that can plague a society. Justice, and the fair play and equal opportunity it promotes, are wonderful. There is another virtue, however, that forces us to ignore justice in order to make the world a better place. This virtue is mercy and it is on display when someone shows compassion and forgiveness to anyone who is guilty.
All of us have wished for mercy at times in our lives. As children, we hoped our parents would go easy on us when we were in the wrong. When we were pulled over for speeding, we knew justice would serve us a ticket and mercy would give us a warning. Our desire for mercy shows us that we do not always want to be treated fairly and that we know the world would be much worse off without it.
Mercy Softens Hearts
Augustine said that mercy drives us to be compassionate towards the misery of others and compels us to help them if we can (The City of God, IX). If we are focused on fairness, balance, and neutrality, we will never show mercy. In order to be merciful, we have to imagine we are wearing the shackles of the guilty and ask ourselves how we would want to be treated if we were in their place. When we empathize with people in this way, our hearts soften and we are more kind and compassionate. Mercy comes from a place within us that remembers we are all imperfect and that the sinner and the saint are one in the same.
Some Wrongs Cannot Be Righted
There are wrongs so damaging that nothing can be done to restore justice. Lies cannot be unsaid. Memories of abuse are not forgotten. Fortunes lost are rarely recovered. Time wasted is never returned. The debts of human wrongdoing must often be cancelled because they can never be repaid. When receiving justice is unlikely—if not impossible—we are left with two options: to feed bitterness with revenge or to show mercy through forgiveness.
Granting mercy does at least as much for the person who shows it as it does for the person who receives it. When we show mercy through forgiveness, we unbind ourselves from anger. We become happier. We are able to look forward to the future instead of being fixated on the past. We also find that compassion teaches us lessons that discipline cannot.
Mercy Is No Fool
When mercy is shown, it is to the benefit of not only the guilty party, but to everyone. This is one of the realities that differentiate an act of mercy from enabling. When we enable others, we make it easier for them to make poor choices by robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the consequences of their actions. For example, giving money to teenagers who are wasteful spenders teaches them nothing about the importance of making shrewd financial decisions; it reinforces their faulty notion that money is something to be spent freely rather than wisely. Mercy saves people from consequences that would do them and others little good. Enabling not only lets people escape from the consequences of their actions, it encourages bad behavior. Mercy benefits all and makes the world a better place because it teaches a powerful lesson of love and forgiveness.
Room for Two
The guilty are more likely to learn from an act of mercy if they have also, at times, been justly punished. In this way, mercy and justice work together to make the world a better place. This means that we should encourage cries for justice but not let them drown out pleas for mercy. We should bless ourselves with mixed emotions and allow our desire for justice to contrast with our regard for mercy. This juxtaposition of justice and mercy is a characteristic of a righteous and humble heart.