E KNOW THESE STORIES ALL TOO WELL:“Crippled by the deadly accurate torpedoes, the Inverness floundered helplessly in the pitching North Atlantic. Oil poured from a gaping wound in her side; crewmen scrambled frantically to lower the few functioning lifeboats. Unable to escape the wolfpack, the troop ship was completely at the mercy of the U-boats.”
“The nominee blinked back the tears as she stepped before the cameras in the briefing room. Earlier today, the White House signaled congressional allies that it was withdrawing support for her nomination because of the mounting allegations. Completely at the mercy of her political adversaries, she had no choice but to end her bid for the appointment.”
“The fourth grader stared helplessly at the model volcano on which he had spent so many hours.
It would not smoke, or erupt, or do anything at all. As the laughter swelled from 20 tongues, his young teacher excused herself into the hallway, leaving him completely at the mercy of his classmates.”
And we know how these stories will end as well. The ship will sink, the nominee will slink away into disgrace, the fourth grader will carry the wound in his heart for years.
To be “completely at the mercy” of anyone or anything is simply a synonym for disaster and destruction, for we, the battle-hardened, know better than to expect any kindness when we fail.
But there is one glorious exception to the rule.
The faith of Jesus runs counter to our expectations of well-deserved destruction. It is the genius of the gospel to remind us that vulnerability doesn’t always end in disaster—that our very helplessness as fallible mortals only recommends us more to the unconditional love of our Savior, and to those of His disciples who follow Him in this.
Mercy isn’t needed where the power equations are all equal, or where skilled negotiators try to strike a deal. It isn’t needed when we buy a house, achieve our educational goals, or try to add to our security with cash beneath the mattress.
Mercy, by its very definition, only operates in the realm of impending disaster, when one with the power to destroy the other chooses not to do so in the name of some greater value or cause. And so it is the most dynamic of virtues operating among us. It rearranges all the power relations on which we have come to grimly depend.
When mercy is in play, the sinner doesn’t get what he deserves.
When mercy manifests itself, the foolish question is graciously answered.
When mercy operates between us, mistakes are covered, reputations saved, men and women restored through time and love to positions that bare justice would have permanently denied them.
It is the most foreign—and the most wonderful—signpost of the progress of the gospel in our lives, the evidence that we are doing more than merely “playing church” or rearranging deck chairs on a doomed ocean liner. Mercy makes possible the gracious fellowship to which Christ calls us, for it gathers us around a value that has no parallel in politics, business, art, or education.
There is one caveat, however: only those give mercy who have at least once received it and felt its life-transforming power. Only those who have placed themselves completely at the mercy of the Savior will know to practice it when others are completely at their mercy.
And so, when we finally come to our senses, we revel in the love we cannot command or control. Mercy builds the hope in all of us who have ever been broken or wounded that there could yet be room for us at the cross, that our names may yet be written in the Lamb’s book of life, that our stories may not end in the roiling waves but go on endlessly beside that sea that looks like glass.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.