Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What Does "Blessed Are the Merciful" Mean?

There are relationships in the scripture that allow us to experience the best in others. The corruption in this thinking though, is that if you have to use mercy to get mercy, it ISN'T mercy. This is the corruption of the church! We are not merciful so God will give us mercy! Jesus is telling us to practice mercy so that it becomes the natural outcome of our lives. In relationships, you will find that if you refuse to forgive, others will rarely forgive you. The more you are embittered, the less you will find grace from others in your life. It is a true human constant. If you withhold love, you will lose the capacity to experience love. Ironically, these are human virtues that you will only experience if you are willing to give them. It's almost as if your soul increase in capacity if you choose to live them out.

What is this thing they call mercy? In Matthew 5:1-11, when Jesus began to paint a picture of what it meant to be truly human, he gave us the "Beattitudes", pronounced (be-attitudes). Erwin McManus studies the fifth of these characteristics, or "the merciful", in his podcast from Don't forget how counter intuitive these Beattitudes were. Jesus was pulling us towards things that we don't normally think about wanting for ourselves, like "poor in spirit" and "meekness". He says we will find ourselves in these places, but not alone. Why is mercy so important for a relationship with Jesus?

Recently, Erwin was in Beverly Hills meeting with this managing partner of a multi-billion dollar company that did terrific things like focusing on economically sound and green technologies to implement for job creation in highly impoverished countries. The business man invited Erwin to see all that they were doing and he introduced Erwin to his partner as a "faith leader". Erwin reflects on the introduction,"That was like saying, 'Hi, this is Erwin. He's a cannibal. Want to go to lunch?'" Erwin was caught off guard when the partner (not abbreviating) responded by saying, "So, tell me, how is your BS different from everyone else's BS?" But Erwin understood exactly why he asked this question! It was because, in our society, when we get into this conversation about religion, it can becomes a question of how the church will manipulate people to a belief system through guilt and condemnation. Two thousand thousand years after Christ, we are a church that is recognized more for knowing what people are doing wrong and for what we are doing right than by being merciful and forgiving.

"One of my favorite movies was Gladiator...It's timeless... I like Russell Crowe, but I really love Joaquin Phoenix." Erwin took his wife, Kim, to the movie one night. On the way home, Kim told him that she was worried about him and his tolerance for violence. In fact the week before, he had taken her to "The Patriot"! So that night, she even hazed him because she said, in both movies, the wives were violently killed! (Funny side notes.) But there is a line in the movie, "Gladiator", where Joaquin is now emperor of Rome and he tells his sister that if she betrays him, he will kill her son. But because he has chosen not to kill him already, he asks her, "Am I not merciful? AM I NOT MERCIFUL??!!?". Erwin loves that line and kiddingly tries to use it with his kids sometimes. But the rule of thumb here, though, is if you have to ask if you are, you are not.

We, as humans, have the extraordinary ability to take the highest virtues and corrupt them to the lowest low of humanity. Mercy is different from meekness. Meekness is controlled strength. Mercy is when two unique things come together; compassion and power. The word mercy is derived from a word that describes a guilty person before a judge, but gets an out-of-the-ordinary pardon from judgement.

Have you ever been in a relationship where you just blew it? You violated trust you had with someone and you'd give anything to take it back? The consequences can bring more devastation that we could ever imagine. So, if you know that feeling, then you know the power of mercy. People can have compassion, but it doesn't activate mercy if they have no power. There are some who have power, but not the interest or concern; i.e. no compassion. If you need mercy, you are postured such that you have no power. But if you have the power, you can find out how you truly are.

Sometimes we talk to God about how we love Him, sometimes to the exclusion of others. But real love from God ALWAYS involves others. And the moment we go to God seeking forgiveness, He begins a conversation with us about forgiving others. In essence, the moment we ask for mercy, that is the moment God demands we give it to others. It's never just enough mercy for us. The moment we experience the mercy from God, it pours out from Him, through us, to others. It's like love. Love is not a limited commodity and He never gives us just enough for us, He gives us more love than we can handle so that it will flow out to others. God WANTS to give His mercy to the person who will GIVE it away.

When Erwin was getting his Masters, he was taking a course from a world reknown scholar; a brilliant man. It seemed that, after every course, Erwin would see a flaw in his thinking and argue with him in front of the class until he was utterly frustrated. You could see that every time Erwin raised his hand, the professor would slump. Erwin admits he was very curious, but he also very arrogant. One day when Erwin walked into class late, he was surprised to find the whole class taking the mid-term. He thought it was two days later. He looked behind him and there was the professor he had antagonized all year, Dr Brooks. "In the hall, Mr. McManus..." Erwin remembers his heart pounding and how he recalled every smart remark he'd ever said to this man.

This was the moment it would all come back. Dr. Brooks asked Erwin what was going on, to which Erwin sheepishly answered that he had been mistaken about the date of the exam. "So what should we do, Mr. McManus?" Erwin humorously talks about all the answers that went through his mind, but he says this was the moment Dr. Brooks could stamp his head "Guilty" or "Condemned". Instead, his professor said, "You know Mr. McManus, I've learned that every human being comes to a place where they need a moment of grace and mercy. This is yours. So, come on Thursday and take the exam." There was no reason in the world for Dr. Brooks to do that and there was every reason in the world for him not to. Walking away, Dr Brooks stopped Erwin and said, "Oh, and Mr. McManus...You only get one. This one's yours."

We don't deserve even one. Mercy is what you can do when you have the choice to bring judgement or to forgive. You are powerful whenever you choose mercy over condemnation. Why are we so quick to judge and slow to forgive? Do you remember the section in "Schindler's List" where the commander of the concentration camp took pleasure in the suffering of others? He would shoot people from his perch just because he could. Schindler went up and convinced him what real power was. It was forgiveness and grace. The commander, as if introduced to a new toy, played with it and practiced it in front of the mirror saying, "I forgive you." He trolled about the camp telling these people, who had experienced absolute evil from him, that he forgave them, but it was as if he took pleasure in seeing their fear of not knowing what he would do next. But the novelty of his new "toy" soon wore off and he went back to his torturing behavior.

What would happen if we all became merciful? This was not what the disciples wanted to hear. All the people of Israel were slaves to the empire of Rome. They wanted a leader who would bring appropriate revenge! But Jesus tells them that their source of power is in love and forgiving. This is a human narrative that remains rare. But if we will practive mercy, we will stand out from the traditional fabric of society. How often do we look in the mirror and measure ourselves by how merciful we've been in the past week?

Erwin challenges us to use our power to withhold condemnation and choose compassion. Then he wants us to begin focusing on how our lives begin to change as we focus on this attribute. The most powerful and compassionate person in the world was Jesus, who was crucified. Even when he came back, He didn't wipe us out as we deserved, He brought more power and more compassion. He brought mercy.

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