A Time for Mercy

I’ve been reading John Grisham‘s latest novel, A Time for Mercy,” this past week in the midst of an unusually frigid winter storm named Uri that rarely ever hits this part of the USA. We’ve had rolling blackouts, freezing water pipes and single digit temperatures along with snow and ice which has kept me indoors for a week until it finally warmed up enough yesterday to go out and buy some groceries. I haven’t experienced this type of winter weather since I left the Midwest back in the early 1990’s, and I never expected to experience it where I currently live which is less than an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, the worst of it has now passed through our area and the current temperature outside as I am writing this blog post is 57 degrees.

As I was reading Grisham’s novel with a battery powered reading light during the first power outage this past Monday, I kept thinking about the topic of mercy. I published a blog post a few months ago on August 7, 2020, titled Agents of Mercy,” after the tumultuous summer of rioting we encountered here in America in the midst of the Covid pandemic that is still ongoing, and which was followed by a very contentious and divisive presidential election that didn’t seem to end but lingered on long after election day was over in early November.

In our world today it seems that mercy is in very short supply. Whether it’s the presidential election or racial injustice or the current cancel culture movement or even a personal wrong done to us by others, we seek out justice that too often centers on revenge.

In an article published on February 6, 2014, in Psychology Today titled, Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences,” by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., he clearly shows the distinctions between justice and revenge:

The terms “revenge” and “justice” often get muddled. And that’s hardly surprising. In the course of history, the two have been frequently used interchangeably. You may even be familiar with the phrase “just revenge.” Still, as meanings alter and evolve over time, the connotations of these two words have increasingly diverged. It’s now uncommon to see them used synonymously. And doubtless, revenge has borne the brunt of the various semantic changes that have transpired.

Yet certain overlaps between—and ambiguities within—the two terms do exist. Before delineating the chief distinctions that can usefully be made to separate them, let me at least hint at what some of these inconsistencies might be.

It would be convenient to advance the claim that justice is fair and revenge is not. But as the words “just revenge” suggest, revenge—depending on its underlying conditions, motivations, and execution—might be either just or unjust, fair or (frankly) outrageously out of proportion to the wrong originally done. There seems to be equivocality tightly woven into the term that’s less perceptible in the related concept of justice. All the same, the well-known phrase “miscarriage of justice” warns us to be careful about distinguishing between concepts that, finally, must be understood as both relative and subjective.

Although I believe that the differences between revenge and justice enumerated below generally hold true, I’d emphasize that they are generalizations, so you’ll probably be able to think of some exceptions. There are instances when revenge can legitimately be understood as a type of justice, and justice a kind of revenge. Moreover, as discrete as I’ve tried to make each of the five categories below, a certain amount of resemblance and repetition has been unavoidable. That is, my “dividing lines” may at times seem a bit arbitrary. 

1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational. Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions. At its worst, it expresses a hot, overwhelming desire for bloodshed. As perverse as it may seem, there’s actual pleasure experienced in causing others to suffer for the hurt they’ve caused the avenger, or self-perceived victim (cf. the less personal Schadenfreude).

Justice—as logically, legally, and ethically defined—isn’t really about “getting even” or experiencing a spiteful joy in retaliation. Instead, it’s about righting a wrong that most members of society (as opposed to simply the alleged victim) would agree is morally culpable. And the presumably unbiased (i.e., unemotional) moral rightness of such justice is based on cultural or community standards of fairness and equity. Whereas revenge has a certain selfish quality to it, “cool” justice is selfless in that it relies on non-self-interested, established law.

2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon. The driving impetus behind revenge is to get even, to carry out a private vendetta, or to achieve what, subjectively, might be described as a personal justice. If successful, the party perceiving itself as gravely injured experiences considerable gratification: their retaliatory goal has been achieved—the other side vanquished, or brought to its knees. Just or not, the avenger feels justified. Their quest for revenge has “re-empowered” them and, from their biased viewpoint, it’s something they’re fully entitled to.

On the other hand, social justice is impersonal. It revolves around moral correction in situations where certain ethical and culturally vital principles have been violated. When justice is successfully meted out, the particular retribution benefits or protects both the individual and society—which can operate effectively only when certain acceptable behavioral guidelines are followed.

3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication. The intense effort to avenge oneself or others can easily become corrupting, morally reducing the avenger’s status to that of the perpetrator. Two wrongs do not make a right and (ethically speaking) never can. Degrading another only ends up further degrading oneself. Even if a kind of justice might be served through an act of revenge, it could still be argued that there’s nothing particularly admirable or evolved in retaliating against a wrong by committing a “like” wrong. Or to behave vengefully is, at best, to take the low road to justice.

In opposition, justice is grounded in assumptions, conventions, and doctrines having to do with honor, fairness, and virtue. Its purpose really isn’t vindictive. That is, bloodthirstiness has no part—or should have no part—in precepts of justice, at least not in the way the term is presently employed. It’s based on established law, and its proceedings are designed to dispense to individuals precisely what is deserved: nothing more, and nothing less.

4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure. Revenge has a way of relentlessly repeating itself (as in interminable feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys)—and ever more maliciously. Revenge typically begets more revenge. Whether it’s an individual or an entire nation, it takes place within a closed system that seems able to feed on itself indefinitely. Unlike tic-tac-toe, tit for tat is a game without end. One side gets satisfaction, then the other is driven to get its satisfaction, and then, theoretically, ad infinitum. There can be no resolution, no compromise. Each faction (say, Israel and Palestine) has its own agenda, its own sense of right and wrong. And the righteous rigidity of each side usually demands that some trusted outsider intervene if matters are ever to be settled.

Justice, in contrast, is designed (by individuals or officials generally not linked to the two opposing camps) to offer a resolution far more likely to eventuate in closure—especially if, in fact, it is just (equitable). And when justice is done so is the conflict that led up to it. Beyond that, punishments for wrongdoing carry an agreed-upon authority lacking in personal vengeful acts, which are calculated solely to “get back” at the assumed perpetrator. Technically speaking, so-called “vigilante justice” isn’t really justice, or social justice, at all—though at times it may appear to be. Taking matters into one’s own hands may sometimes seem justified, but it hardly meets the more rigorous criteria for consensual, or community, justice.

5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance. The motive of revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage, hatred, or spite. It’s a protest or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm. In and of itself, it’s not primarily about justice but about victims’ affirming their inborn (but non-legal) right to retaliate against some wrong done to them.

And because it’s so impassioned, it’s typically disproportionate to the original injury—meaning that it usually can’t be viewed as just. The punishment may fit the crime, but it’s often an exaggerated response to another’s perceived offense.

On the contrary, justice is concerned with dispassionately restoring balance by bringing about equality—or better, equity. It centers on proportion as it equates to fairness. Not driven by emotion, restorative justice—meted out by a court of law—seeks to be as objective and evenhanded as possible. It’s not, as is so much of revenge, about doing the other side “one better” but about equitably—or properly—punishing wrongdoing. In fact, the ancient “law of the ‘talion’” (an ethical standard originating in Babylonian law and present as well in the Bible and early Roman law) focuses on what is commonly known (but, hopefully, only metaphorically!) as the “eye for an eye” conception of justice. In brief, the kind or magnitude of justice meted out is contrived to “correspond” as exactly as possible to the gravity of the original injury. (Quote source here.)

In a devotion published on November 25, 2017, titled, Don’t Confuse Mercy and Justice,” on DJamesKennedy.org (author’s name not mentioned), the devotion states the following:

This world does not operate on grace; it operates on the basis of merit, on the basis of justice. Quid pro quo, this for that; you do this, you get that. That is the way the entire world operates—on the basis of justice or equity.

Early in my ministry, I went to preach in a jail, and a man snapped at me that all he demanded was justice. I said if he got justice, the floor would open up and send him to hell.

What we need is mercy, not justice.

Consider the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the famous couple accused of being Soviet spies who gave away our atomic secrets. They were convicted of espionage by the jury and were sentenced to death. Their lawyers said to Judge Kaufman, “Your honor, all my clients ask for is justice.”

Judge Kaufman replied, “What your clients have asked for, this court has given them. What you really mean, is what they want is mercy, and that, this court is not empowered to give.”

But that is precisely what our God—the Judge of all of the earth—is able to do: grant us mercy. That is the wondrous news of the Gospel.

While none of us is perfect, and none of us has lived up to God’s standard, and all of us have fallen short, Jesus Christ came to do what we are unable to do. In His mercy, He saved us by His blood. (Quote source here.)

And in another article published on May 14, 2019, titled, Feeling Vengeful?” by Marc Massery, contributor at thedivinemercy.org, he writes:

It’s inevitable. People in our lives, even people we love, will wrong us in one way or another. Look at Jesus. He never did anything wrong. Still, He was gravely wronged, to the point of death.

When someone wrongs us, often we have the natural urge to want to harm them back…. We’re all susceptible to giving in to the spirit of revenge. But we must try our best not to give in. Though exacting revenge may feel like it will relieve us and set things right, it never does. In fact, trying to get revenge only ever makes things worse.

It says in Scripture, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.'” (Rom 12:19-20). It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK, even good when appropriate, to express feelings and emotions. But to channel our anger into exacting vengeance only breeds more hurt. We must replace desire for revenge with mercy, as Jesus did.

Scripture commentator Scott Hahn says of this Scripture passage, “Heaping coals of kindness on one who has wronged you can cure him of vices, burn away his malice, and move him to repentance.”

Love and mercy can bring healing into just about any situation. God, of course, transformed the death of His innocent Son into the saving act of Redemption.

On the other hand, prudence requires us, in certain situations, to take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from harm. For example, avoiding someone who has shown they mean you harm is not revenge so much as mercifully protecting the innocent.

Though we should not seek revenge, this does not mean that God is unfair. Hahn continues, “God overlooks no evil or wrongdoing but will exact justice on the Day of Judgment.” The Lord will set everything right at the end of time. For now, we can trust that God can bring forth a greater good from our suffering if we let Him.

In the end, God is the only one whom we can count on to never hurt us. No matter how much we might harm Him, He is all-merciful. He merely asks us to treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12 from the J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament:

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers [and sisters], as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. For just as you have many members in one physical body and those members differ in their functions, so we, though many in number, compose one body in Christ and are all members of one another. Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it. Let the man who is called to give, give freely; let the man who wields authority think of his responsibility; and let the man who feels sympathy for his fellows act cheerfully.

Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good.

Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers [and sisters], and a willingness to let the other man have the credit.

Let us not allow slackness to spoil our work and let us keep the fires of the spirit burning, as we do our work for God.

Base your happiness on your hope in Christ. When trials come endure them patiently, steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer.

Give freely to fellow-Christians in want, never grudging a meal or a bed to those who need them.

And as for those who try to make your life a misery, bless them. Don’t curse, bless.

Share the happiness of those who are happy, the sorrow of those who are sad.

Live in harmony with each other. Don’t become snobbish but take a real interest in ordinary people. Don’t become set in your own opinions.

Don’t pay back a bad turn by a bad turn, to anyone. Don’t say “it doesn’t matter what people think”, but see that your public behavior is above criticism.

As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone.

Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’.

These are God’s words: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head’. Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil…

Take the offensive . . .

Overpower evil . . .

By good . . . .

YouTube Video: “Mercy Came Running” by Phillips, Craig & Dean:

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Photo #2 credit here

Turning the Other Cheek

The last blog post I published on my other blog two weeks ago titled, Demonstrating Grace,” was on the topic of extending grace instead of dispensing justice even when justice would have been justified. I’ve thought a lot about that topic since I wrote that last blog post, and I was given another opportunity to “turn the other cheek” again a few days ago.

After that second opportunity occurred so soon after the first, I humorously emailed a friend stating that 2020 has already given me two opportunities to “turn the other cheek,” and I had now run out of cheeks to turn and February has only just begun. The subject of forgiveness can get pretty bogged down as we live in a fast paced society today where insults are spewed all over social media at break neck speed, and a general lack of hospitality and civility has infected even the most seemingly innocuous interactions we have with others.

For instance, doesn’t it just rankle you when someone sweetly says, “Bless you,” but you know they don’t really mean it, and it’s given as an insult with a nice smile cover-up? Seems our society runs on short fuses most of the time today. No wonder I feel like I’ve run out of cheeks to turn in such a short period of time since 2020 burst upon us just over a scant month ago. All of those insults can wear a person down.

Apparently, doing good isn’t fashionable today. No gold stars or brownie points are given out for doing good or turning the other cheek. Laughter and insults are often the response, and they are often disguised as “nicey-nice” expressions, but they don’t hide the hate. Isn’t it wonderful to live in a society where we can so freely express our hate for each other on a regular basis by disguising it by using nice words and a fake smile?

Social media has also had a big part in programming us in that direction whether spewing hate out in the open and in your face, or hiding it behind “nicey-nice” words and smiles that mean nothing. Slinging mud while disguising it in pretty words and an insincere smile might make it seem not as bad as actually spewing the “F” word, but it all means the same thing.

It was Jesus who said we should turn the other cheek and not return evil for evil. So what exactly did he mean by turning the other cheek? GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:

In Matthew 5:38–39, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” The concept of “turning the other cheek” is a difficult one for us to grasp. Allowing a second slap after being slapped once does not come naturally.

In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which He commands us to turn the other cheek, He addresses the need for true transformation, versus mere rule-keeping. It’s not enough to obey the letter of the law; we must conform to the spirit of the law as well.

Much of the material surrounding Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek complements the nature of His coming, which was characterized by mercy, sacrificial love, and long suffering toward sinners. At the same time, Jesus affirms the “last is first” principle upon which the kingdom of God is based. For instance, He tells us to go the extra mile for someone who abuses us (Matthew 5:41) and to love and pray for our enemies instead of holding enmity against them (verse 44). In summary, Jesus is saying we need to be pure inside and out and as accommodating as possible for the sake of a lost world.

A word about the “slap” that Jesus says we should endure. Jesus here speaks of personal slights of any kind. The slap (or the “smiting,” as the KJV has it) does not have to involve literal, physical violence. Even in our day, a “slap in the face” is a metaphor for an unexpected insult or offense. Did someone insult you? Let him, Jesus says. Are you shocked and offended? Don’t be. And don’t return insult for insult. Turn the other cheek.

Matthew Henry’s comment on this verse is helpful: “Suffer any injury that can be borne, for the sake of peace, committing your concerns to the Lord’s keeping. And the sum of all is, that Christians must avoid disputing and striving. If any say, Flesh and blood cannot pass by such an affront, let them remember, that flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God; and those who act upon right principles will have most peace and comfort” (Concise Commentary, entry for Matthew 5:38).

Turning the other cheek does not imply pacifism, nor does it mean we place ourselves or others in danger. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek is simply a command to forgo retaliation for personal offenses. He was not setting government foreign policy, and He was not throwing out the judicial system. Crimes can still be prosecuted, and wars can still be waged, but the follower of Christ need not defend his personal “rights” or avenge his honor.

There was a time in history when a man would feel compelled to protect his honor against one who slandered him or otherwise besmirched his character. The offended party would challenge the offender to a duel. Swords, firearms, or other weapons were chosen, and the two enemies would face off. In most cases, senseless bloodshed ensued. Samuel Johnson wrote in favor of the practice of dueling: “A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” The problem is that “invasions of character” are exactly what Jesus told us to tolerate in Matthew 5:38. Turning the other cheek would have been a better option than dueling, and it would have saved lives.

Retaliation is what most people expect and how worldly people act. Turning the other cheek requires help from on high. Responding to hatred with love and ignoring personal slights display the supernatural power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and may afford the chance to share the gospel.

Jesus was, of course, the perfect example of turning the other cheek because He was silent before His accusers and did not call down revenge from heaven on those who crucified Him. Instead, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). (Quote source here.)

In an article published on January 29, 2018, titled, Does ‘Turn the Other Cheek’ Mean ‘Get Walked All Over’?” by Chris Nye, pastor of leadership development at Awakening Church in the Silicon Valley and the author of “Distant God,” he writes:

I have sometimes heard well-meaning Christians counsel those going through difficult circumstances that “this is your cross to bear” or “Jesus told us we would suffer” or “you’ve got to deny yourself.” Some cite Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:39 as a proper response to the people in our lives who have hurt us. Sometimes these well-meaning people tell us to stick around in unhealthy relationships because isn’t that what Christ would do? He was crucified, after all, and aren’t we supposed to follow in his steps?

But does turning the other cheek and denying ourselves really mean we should endure unhealthy relationships and circumstances, no matter what? Should we stick around in relationships we sense are damaging us because we need to “deny ourselves”?

Here are four observations that might help as we consider such questions.

1. There is a difference between laying your life down and someone taking it.

Scripture instructs us to “lay down our lives” for Christ’s sake and to take up our cross (1 John 3:16Matt. 16:24). But notice the active agent in that sentence: you. There is a difference between voluntarily laying down your life and someone taking your life from you. Jesus said he laid down his life so that he “may take it up again.” He went on: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).

There were many times Jesus could have allowed his life to be taken, but he escaped because “his time had not come yet” (John 7:30, 44; 10:39). We need not pity Jesus for his death—he was accomplishing his mission, on his terms. And we need not pity ourselves, out of a false martyrdom complex, when we allow dangerous or unhealthy people to dictate our lives. We must be certain that we, like Jesus, are laying our lives down on our own accord and not having them taken from us by life-sucking individuals.

2. We are to pick up our cross, but not every cross.

When Jesus teaches us to daily pick up our cross, he uses the possessive: it’s our cross to bear (Luke 9:23). What is this cross? It will likely be different for everyone, but you’ll know when it’s yours. We cannot carry every cross and burden we see in our sights. As Paul tells the Galatians, “For each will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5). But wait, doesn’t Paul also say in that same passage to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2)? Which is it? Should we bear our own burdens or others’ burdens? Yes. Both.

We are called to discernment—to wisely assess if such burdens are ours to carry. Can we handle it? Is this our battle to fight? Am I getting involved to show love or to prove a point? Am I getting involved to serve another or to serve myself?

3. Jesus set limits and boundaries on his ministry.

There were so many people Jesus disappointed; so many in the back of crowds who never got close enough to touch the hem of his garment. One interaction stands out: a young man asks Jesus to settle a legal dispute between him and his brother. Jesus responds: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). It’s a good question. Jesus understood when he was being asked to do things outside of the focus of his ministry. He knew his calling, he knew his ministry, and he protected these things while remaining remarkably compassionate.

4. You are just one part of the body.

In certain kinds of churches, two or three people shoulder all the burdens. It’s common for one pastor to do most of the weddings, funerals, and hospital visits. But I do not see any evidence in the New Testament to support this kind of organizational structure. Paul speaks of the “body of Christ,” of which all of us are differing “members.” When someone carries a backpack or lifts something up, the weight is distributed to many different places on the body. While one area will bear the most (you can hear your dad saying, “Lift with your legs, son!”), your whole body feels the pressure. Likewise, you should entrust your burdens to the body of your church. You’re not the only one who can visit a hospital, offer relational counsel, or pray for the hurting.

Again, Jesus set limits on his ministry. We forget all the people he passed by, all the sick who left unhealed simply because he couldn’t get to them. We forget how he evaded crowds and escaped the masses. We forget that while many stones were thrown at him, he dodged them all so that he might pick up his cross.

Jesus was not walked all over, and no one took his life. If you are to imitate him and become like him, no one should take yours.

Disciples of Jesus would be wise to follow him specifically in this area by setting boundaries. You don’t have to text that person back right away. You can answer your emails during an allotted time. The tasks ahead will always be infinite, but you are finite. Especially for those of us in full-time ministry, we must learn the art of wise dismissal, of letting people down, and saying “no” so that we might say “yes” to the fullness of life in Christ Jesus. (Quote source here.)

Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5:38-39 that we are not to resist an evil person, and that we are to turn the other cheek. So what is the best way to not resist an evil person? Paul stated in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In a brief article titled, Explain ‘Do Not Be Overcome with Evil, But Overcome Evil with Good’,” by Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network; host of The 700 Club, and CEO of Regent University, he writes:

There is only one way that evil can overcome a Christian, and that is if the Christian returns evil for evil. If someone insults you and snarls at you, you are not overcome. You are overcome if you begin to snarl right back. Then the unpleasant person has become your role model. You are copying evil and evil is overcoming you. If someone hates you and you hate him back, then evil is getting the victory. If someone strikes you and you strike back, then you have become like the evil one.

The Bible says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). If someone reviles you, you are to smile back and say, “God bless you.” The person will not know how to react to that, and you have overcome him. You have won. That person has not changed you, but you have gone on the offensive with the most powerful weapon in the world–love! If someone strikes you on the cheek, Jesus said you should turn the other cheek (see Matthew 5:39Luke 6:29). And that will leave your adversary totally confused! And then on top of that you should say, “I love you.”

If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles. If someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well (see Matthew 5:40-41). Do so graciously, cheerfully, even assertively. God has given you the spiritual weapons to discern who your enemies are and then to conquer them by making them your friends. (Of course, as long as there are vicious criminals and international tyrants in the world, there must be a system of restraint through local or international police. In Romans 13, police and legitimate armies are considered by the apostle Paul as “ministers of God” to bring vengeance on lawbreakers.) (Quote source  here.)

Turning the other cheek may not be a popular response in our culture today, but it is the only right response according to Jesus. And how do we do that? We do it by…

Overcoming evil . . .

With . . .

Good . . . .

YouTube Video: “Forgiveness” by TobyMac ft. Lacrae:

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Photo #2 credit here