The Mercy We Hate and Need
God is love, but when Scripture addresses what that means, it is inextricably merciful. "I AM, I AM a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and great in covenant love and faithfulness." (Exodus 34:6) God gives us what we explicitly don't deserve, and He patiently refuses to get ticked at us in the way we do deserve, and that is the definition of His love.
Mercy is for screw-ups. It is for the guilty, for people who deserve the bad things happening to them. It is for those crooked in their hearts, complicit with violence, far from the beauty they were created to display.
Crucially, it is not that mercy includes such people; it is exclusively for them. When Jesus tells the Pharisees he came for the sin-sick and not the righteous, he doesn't mean the upstanding religious leaders don't need Him. No, it is precisely that they do not see their need. Jesus's words are a terrible proclamation of judgment- those who do not know their brokenness cannot know the Son of God.
This convicting mercy is why repentance is essential if we are to experience divine love. Repentance- admitting and owning and grieving our sins- is not an arbitrary hoop we jump through, a self-flagellation that somehow earns God's favor. Rather, we must come to God broken by our wickedness because only then is it possible to receive mercy. We will not accept grace, cannot even behold it, unless we first admit that we are those who need it.
This convicting mercy is also why we often hate it.
Once, after mistreating a friend, I went to them and apologized, said I had been having a bad day, that I wasn't thinking. What I wanted them to say was, "It's okay. Don't worry about it." Instead, they looked at me and said, "I was really hurt by that, but I forgive you." I was furious. I wanted their acceptance, but not their forgiveness. After all, that meant I had done something really wrong, and despite my words, my heart didn't want to admit that fact.
I observe the same impulse in Christians (including me) when we are challenged. We immediately jump to defensiveness or excuses or attack the person offering the challenge. These responses are not those of people relying on mercy. That doesn't mean every accuser is correct- sometimes they are helping the Accuser, after all. But our posture should always be one that is open to being wrong, that is curious and suspicious of our actions and motivations. After all, we often are in need of correction. That's what it means to be people who claim the love of God.
Merciful love humbles us. It undoes us. In a real sense, it breaks us. Yet it is also only that love that brings true freedom.
Every evening, weary from the battle of the day, I look in the mirror and know that I have failed in a dozen different ways. Failed in my words, in my relationships, in my thoughts, in things I've done and mountains of good I've failed to do. However, the seeing of that sin is also my freeing, because in that moment I'm able to breath out and say, "God sees it all too. He sees it better than I ever could. His love assumes all of those failures; they are precisely where His grace is poured and His acceptance spoken."
Worldly love leads us to seek to justify ourselves. To explain our sins away, or minimize them, or deny they exist. We are the ones who must talk to ourselves in the mirror, talk ourselves out of our guilt, tell our reflections that we are good and beautiful and perfect people who shouldn't apologize for anything.
Godly merciful love means we don't need to speak at all. We can just behold our weakness and own it. As we do, God points out the scars and lines and imperfections and says, "My love includes all of that. Even more, my love demands it. I AM the God who faithfully loves people like you."
Mercy is the love we hate; mercy is the love we truly need.