“Mercy triumphs over judgment,” wrote the apostle James (James 2:13). That’s good to hear. It seems like there are a whole lot of people these days who are more interested in passing judgment than they are in extending mercy. But James reminds us of what Jesus taught on a hillside long ago: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Simply put, showing mercy is not giving another what they deserve. It is being spared the rightful consequences of something we have done or said. When I am busted driving 20 mph over the speed limit, it is the officer not giving me a ticket and instead reminding me to be careful and slow down.
Different than Justice…
Mercy is a different concept than justice—giving someone what they do deserve. Although often thought of in punitive terms, it isn’t limited to punishment or consequences. Loud and impassioned demonstrations for justice dominate the news, and they are understandable. We all want to be treated fairly and equitably, and in our Constitutional form of democracy that is what we deserve. While we may debate at times what that means, we know well that many among us are not treated fairly and equitably, and that some enclaves in our communities are largely devoid of basic opportunities and advantages that others of us routinely receive. We ignore injustice at our own peril, and read in the Bible that God requires us to be humble conduits of justice and mercy:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Different still is grace, where more than being spared negative consequences we deserve, as in mercy, we are also extended favor that we do not deserve. Grace and mercy are similar and often coexist, but they are not the same. Mercy is not being punished for my mistake, whereas grace is being given another chance. It is not only avoiding the results of my weaknesses, but also being given a strength that is not my own (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is God not only refusing to punish us for our rebellion, but also adopting us as sons and daughters (Romans 8:14-17). We would do well to dispense grace to others in gratitude for the grace God extends to us all.
The starting point, however, is mercy. We have a tendency to point out the wrongs or faults of others and cheer—sometimes literally— when they reap the punishment or consequences they deserve. And we relish being in the position of judgment, where we might “administer” justice to another. When it comes to our own faults, however, we are predictably more enthusiastic about mercy than we are justice. I suppose that’s why James links mercy with judgment, and reminds us that we should be more interested in giving people a break than in calling them out. Ultimately, mercy that goes around comes around. Mercy wins.