Sunday, January 07, 2007

Love and Mercy

On our way home from church this morning my wife, Mary, and I had a conversation about love and mercy. She said she could better appreciate mercy given what I've been harping on about "giving the benefit of the doubt." This prompted a raised eyebrow.

That's love. Not mercy.

Let me give an example. In Dashiell Hammett's short novel "The Thin Man" Nick and Nora Charles are the married protagonists. Nick has married extremely well, but he has the reputation of being a lady's man. A former client's daughter has grown up with a crush on Nick and is now in her early 20s. At one point, Nora walks into the girl's bedroom and finds Nick on the bed hugging the girl. Looks bad, right? Turns out that Nick is not putting the moves on the girl. He's comforting her. Nora doesn't get all jealous and huffy. She extends Nick the benefit of the doubt. Nick is truly innocent of infidelity and Nora treats him as if he's innocent. This is love.

I have marveled at how much worse I treat those closest to me than I treat strangers. Why?

With strangers or recent acquaintances I know nothing about them. There's a whole ocean of doubt. Lacking a context within which to interpret their words and actions, I put the best possible spin thereon. This isn't anything special. It's just loving my neighbor. Simple Christianity 101.

I once described love as giving the other every benefit of every doubt. The person I was talking to asked me, "how is that different from being a doormat?" I replied, "what do you do when you run out of doubt?" If there is no doubt the other is mistreating you, love doesn't demand that you ignore it.

I can think of people that I've "given up on." I've no desire for relationship with them and I maintain only the minimum contact. In one case, I conversation is like walking through a mine field and I just don't want to blow off my foot again. I have "run out of doubt" where this person is concerned.

You'll recall that Mary and I were having this discussion on the way back from church. Our conversation reminded me that MERCY goes one step past LOVE. Love prompts me to cut the other some slack when they might not be guilty. Mercy goes past that. Mercy prompts me to cut the other some slack when they are certainly guilty.

Like after you run out of doubt?

I know I need mercy. If you ever meet someone who doesn't need mercy, he's not a Christian, no matter what he says.

And I know I should expect the same sort of mercy that I dispense. So when "give up on" people and shrug off further relationship, I'm not being merciful. In fact, my attitude is relatively harsh. And wrong. I desperately need mercy. I guess this means I no longer have the option to "give up on" people.

That's why conflicts with family members are so troubling. We naturally love our family. But we know our family members better than anyone else. Not much doubt. I have two uncles, one jolly and one bitter. The bitter one remembers some insult or injustice done to him as a child. I don't know what it is, and I suspect he's absolutely correct about it. But he won't forgive. And it's made him a bitter old man. He's "given up on" his siblings. I don't want to be that guy.

I think we do not naturally MERCY our families. Or maybe we need to be more intentional about how we MERCY family members. My parents are gone, but my siblings and my wife and my children all have the capacity to do something that makes me disgusted and grumpy, etc. And because I know them so well, I can realize there's no excuse. When there's no excuse, we're most strongly moved to "give up on" people and walk away. When there's no excuse, that's when we are called upon to MERCY the other.

My wife taught me something important coming home from church today.

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