Fasting from Judgment: The Call to Mercy
When I was younger, mercy was an entirely unimpressive spiritual gift to me. It didn’t have the muscle of prophecy. It didn’t appeal to me like knowledge or teaching. It was so hidden and quiet and small. Works of mercy seemed contrary to the greatness to which I had been called. I am overstating it, certainly, but at its center this was my pride.
We all, of course, want to be great. But the greatness that God calls us to is not ultimately the same as what we think of when we hear that God wants something great of us. We understand greatness as the world wants us to understand it, as a perversion of greatness: fame, influence, being like God. Mercy, however, counters this idea of greatness with the call to decrease, to become less. In many ways, mercy requires me to be nothing in order that Christ might be everything. And mercy does more.
The heart of the gospel is love, and love precludes judging my neighbor. Christ calls us to forgive others and show mercy to them so that God will forgive us and show mercy to us (Matthew 7). Love covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12; 17:9; 1 Peter 4:8). It is not our job to look at another person’s life and condemn him or her. It is our job to pray for mercy, first for ourselves and then for our neighbor.
Prayer itself is an outworking of mercy. Cyprian of Carthage, in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, says that it is purposeful that we pray “Our Father” rather than “My Father.” “It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation or to be delivered from evil. Rather, we pray in public as a community, and not for one individual but for all. For the people of God are all one” (Treatise 4, 8). We are to pray together for one another—not for me alone, but for us. I am not the body of Christ—we are. So mercy steps in and prays for my brother who struggles with lust and pornography; it does not condemn him. Mercy steps in and prays for my sister who has become embittered toward her neighbor; it does not condemn her.
Pride lurks even here, of course. It is important that we do not simply pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on that sinner John.” Instead, we beg for mercy for ourselves first, understanding that we are adulterers and murderers, that the plank is in our eye: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on John.” In this way, we keep in mind our failings and our need for forgiveness even as we pray for our brothers and sisters. We are not any better than they. Paul exhorts us to consider them as being better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Peter exhorts us to cover their sin (1 Peter 4:8). This doesn’t mean we should pretend that the sin isn’t there, or that suddenly the sin is okay. It means that we must never believe that we are worthy of Christ’s mercy while they are not. It means that we recognize them as brothers and sisters: like us, struggling with sin and wanting to be holy, yet failing.
Mercy is an impressive manifestation of the Spirit of God. If I could be known for anything as a Christian, I would wish that it would be for my mercy. Strive to be merciful. Show others the mercy that you long to be shown. Be merciful through prayer. Serve in hiddenness and quietness, and refrain from the judgmental speech that so readily comes to our minds and lips. Fast from judgment and love your brother deeply. You have been forgiven much; therefore, love greatly.