When I was a child, I was painfully shy and quiet. Not many people who know me now would believe it, but it is true. I remember horrible times in class when I would erase so hard I’d make a hole in the paper and would need another one, but I was too afraid to ask the teacher. I would sit and hope, I suppose, for something like mercy—for the teacher to walk by and notice my need and so provide for it.
For one definition of mercy, there must be some kind of power relationship. The person with the power shows mercy; the one without power receives it. In the Bible, the Pharisees had power and a whole lot of rules; they did not have mercy. There is a way of looking down on someone that would seem to have the air of compassion, but it in fact maintains the power relationship. I am here looking down on you in pity, and I, the one who has it together and understands how things should go, will lower myself to help you. It feels great to give that kind of mercy, but utterly lousy to receive it. Biblical mercy, it seems to me, is something different:
“Chesed, mercy, means the ability to get right inside the other person's skin until we can see things with his eyes, think things with his mind, and feel things with his feelings” (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, commentary on Matthew).Blessed are the ones that can get inside someone’s skin so much that they are able to show grace without power getting in the way. I am usually so preoccupied with what is going on in my own skin that I am half-hearted at best in my attention to those around me. And even the times when I am able to break past my self-consciousness and try to focus on another’s experience, I find myself filled with despair. There is so much sadness in me, so much more in other people. Where is God in all this? Where, indeed, is mercy?
Maybe mercy is found in that very moment of letting down your guard to another person, in having someone you can trust with your weakness. Maybe mercy is found in recognizing that though we suffer deeply, we are not the only ones. Mercy is all about relationship, not power. Mercy is what God shows to us and what we show to each other when we best live up to the example of Christ. In this way, mercy is not just a noun but a verb—not a thing, but an action. So my prayer today and always is for me to “mercy” others and for God to “mercy” me.