Fasting from Judgment: An Introduction to Mercy
“God’s grace is only for the good”—this is how we often treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. We act as if the mercy of God is only for those who do not steal, have not been in prison, manage to hold onto a job, and can budget their money well. Our lists are endless, of course, usually mirroring our strengths and shying away from our weaknesses. They uphold the silent expectations that some church communities have of what “good” Christians do or do not do. “Such-and-such are the marks of true Christians” is the message that, though usually unspoken, is clearly heard. To these moral people, and only to them, is God merciful. We all have a tendency to do this. Some of our expectations are good and biblical, but some of them are simply prejudices, fears that have grown into rules.
God’s grace is for sinners. He does not play the physician to those who believe they are well. And here’s the glorious rub: We all are sick. We cannot receive God’s grace and mercy until we understand this. He will not consent to heal us if we do not consent to be healed. “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner” (Luke 18:13, NLT)—this is the one who goes home justified.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that we must not judge others and that we must be merciful if we wish to receive God’s mercy. “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14, 15, NLT). In his homily on this passage, John Chrysostom says the following:
Instead of the brutality of devils, let us take upon us the mildness of angels; and in whatsoever things we may have been injured, let us, considering our own case . . . soften our anger; let us assuage the billows, that we may both pass through the present life calmly, and when we have departed there, may find our Lord such as we have been towards our fellow-servants. And if [meeting our Lord] be a heavy and fearful thing, let us make it light and desirable; and let us open the glorious gates of confidence towards Him; and what we had not strength to effect by abstaining from sin, that let us accomplish by becoming gentle to them who have sinned against us (for this surely is not grievous, nor burdensome); and let us by doing kindnesses to our enemies, lay up beforehand much mercy for ourselves (Homily 19,12).
One of the most profound themes throughout the Desert Fathers’ writings is, “Do not judge”—or, as I have thought of it before, “Judge yourself; excuse others.” In other words, always show mercy to those around you. This message echoes the Sermon on the Mount (“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged”) and in the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us”). The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.
The message is clear: I am the one in need of mercy. Here is the heart of holiness. If you wish to have communion with God, to participate in his life, then you must be as he is. You must love those he loves and show mercy to those to whom he shows mercy. Judgment crowds out love.
This teaching culminates in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35, NLT). “ ‘Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart’ ” (Matthew 18:34-35, NLT).
None of us can perfectly show mercy or forgive others. Learn to try again each day. When you become aware that you are forming judgments of others, that you are striking back at those who have hurt you sorely, then breathe deeply and remember the great mercy you have been shown. Pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on this sinner.”
Have mercy on this sinner. Not him or her—no, I am the one who needs God’s mercy. I have greatly sinned—mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.