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:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Our Response

quote-on-helping-2Everyday we have opportunities to help others, hurt others, bless others, or curse others. With all the heat coming out of the political arena this election year, it would seem “helping” and “blessing” others is in rather short supply. And let’s not forget about hidden agendas and deception that proliferate among and within us. And all of that nasty business focuses on us and what we want, and that’s where we get off track most of the time and we forget about the “human” part of being a member of the human race. Self rules. . . . 

In my last blog post titled, What’s Love Got To Do With It,” I quoted a verse from the apostle Paul found in Romans 12:18 NIV:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you,
live at peace with everyone.”

I’ve been giving that verse a lot of thought since I published that blog post two weeks ago. Part of what I wrote about in that blog post was the fact that there is real evil in our world that we have no control over (e.g., terrorism, criminal activity, etc.), but we do have control over how we react to evil when it enters our own lives. I’ll be the first to admit that self-protection is the first reaction that rears it’s head when faced with evil at any level. And in today’s world there are plenty of folks who couldn’t care less about peace-making or peace-keeping and who operate from agendas we can’t possibly understand (such as terrorism); and the daily news headlines attest to that very clear fact, too. And to bring it closer to home, even in Christian circles there can be a lot of disagreement that is anything but peaceful. Yet, as Paul admonishes us in the verse above, as much as it is possible and as far as it depends on us, that we need to live at peace with everyone, even those folks who seem to want to wage war with us for whatever their reasons may be.

This afternoon as I was again reflecting on that verse, I decided to read the entire chapter of Romans 12, and I decided to read it from The Message Bible. Here is what it has to say to us:

Place Your Life Before God

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

Romans 12v9-10In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.

If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

For those who might like a more traditional version, here is Romans 12 from the NIV:

A Living Sacrifice

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love in Action

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
I
n doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

While we cannot control others, we can control ourselves. And as Paul stated, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

And that’s great advice . . .

So go . . .

And do likewise . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here
Photo #3 credit here