I hate to admit it, but vindictiveness comes easily to me. Recently, I was online for less than two minutes before I found myself relishing an opponent getting publicly mocked. He had said something particularly and typically foolish, so he surely deserved it. Right when I was going to pile on, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Plain came to mind: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
It’s often passed over, but it’s an arresting thought. In form, it appears as a gloss of one of the most important commands in the Old Testament: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The Lord, the Holy One, had saved Israel and set them apart from the nations to be his holy people (Ex. 19:4–6). They had been sanctified to reflect God’s holiness to the nations in their holy worship, conduct, and character.
Jesus teaches his disciples that living as “children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35) means loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, lending without expectation of return, and blessing those who curse us; this will set us apart. Put another way, mercy is what holiness looks like in the lives of God’s children.
Many of us don’t associate God’s holiness with his mercy. Holiness as purity, judgment, and wrath? Sure. God’s holiness is the distinctive glory, power, and majesty of his incorruptible life. But witness God’s self-testimony to Israel in Hosea (11:9):
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
The Lord reveals himself as the Holy One precisely in his compassion for sinful and pitiful Israel. We see his utter supremacy, authority, and power when he declares, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19). And it is by God’s mercy that God’s people are made holy: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10).
As Catherine of Siena writes, “By your mercy we were created. And by your mercy we were created anew in your Son’s blood. It is your mercy that preserves us.” Little wonder, then, Jesus demands his people be marked by compassion and mercy.
While Jesus’ words are perennially imperative, I can’t help thinking that the church as a community of mercy could be a special testimony to God’s holiness in an increasingly merciless and vindictive age.
We live in a time of take-no-prisoners tribal combat, where our enemies are not simply wrong but evil and need to be destroyed. Our social media mobs are not satisfied with highlighting problems but rush to play judge, jury, and social executioner in a matter of hours. Indeed, we are encouraged to achieve our own self-vindication through the public prosecution of our enemies’ sins.
Could a commitment to radical mercy for our enemies be how we “shine among them like stars in the sky” (Phil. 2:15)? A people careful with our condemnation. A people who refuse to respond in kind to hate. A people who actively pray for those who frustrate, offend, and despise us and creatively seek ways to bless them. Is that not a priestly, holy nation?
Of course, this mercy can’t be taken to rule out working for justice on behalf of the oppressed. Biblical mercy includes compassion for the downtrodden, which motivates us to seek their good and their protection.
But even then, mercy begins to pervade and leaven our way of pursuing justice. It seeks the repentance of the oppressor alongside the protection of the oppressed. I think here of the witness of Rachael Denhollander, pleading with Larry Nassar to trust Christ, confess, and repent his sins, even as she pressed for justice for his victims. That is a holy—a unique and supernatural—mercy in the middle of the pursuit of justice.
Puritan preacher Thomas Watson once said, “God’s mercy is one of the most orient pearls of his crown; it makes his Godhead appear amiable and lovely.” In that sense, mercy is what allows us to recognize his holiness for what it is. Just so, being a merciful people makes his Godhead appear amiable and lovely.
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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