the most powerful description of mercy I’ve ever read.
(continued from yesterday)
In a brilliant closing section, Merton describes the consistency of the logical world and the consistency of justice, contrasted to mercy which is always surprising and always overturns our feeble constants. “But mercy breaks into the world of magic and justice and overturns its apparent consistency,” he says. “It is therefore comic…Only mercy can liberate us from the madness of our determination to be consistent–from the awful patterns of lusts, greeds, angers and hatreds which mix us up together like a mass of dough and thrust us all together into the oven.” We become obsessed with many things, become compulsive about many things. But “you cannot become obsessed with mercy!”
In the powerful closing paragraphs, Merton contends:
This is the inner secret of mercy. It is totally incompatible with obsession, with compulsion. It liberates from all the rigid and deterministic structures which magic strives to impose on reality (or which science, the child of magic, tries to impose)!
Mercy is not to be purchased by a set way of acting, by a formal determination to be consistent.
Law is consistent. Grace is “inconsistent.”
The Cross is the sign of contradiction–destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies, of blood sacrifice, and of obsession.
But the magicians keep turning the Cross to their own purposes . Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the Cross contradict mercy! This of course is the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved–while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.
And that may well be one of the finest, most poignant descriptions of God’s mercy I’ve read. It is interesting how tyrannical our structures and our judgments really are–and just how violently disruptive really is to the world’s order. It’s also interesting that no matter how much you grow in love for God or formation in Christ-likeness, mercy never quite comes naturally. Even living from the depths of God’s goodness, there is always an intentional act to step into the disruption of mercy, as unwelcome as it is to almost any human system.
Because it is one of the most powerful sentences I’ve ever read, I think this line bears repeating: “The Cross is the sign of contradiction–destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies, of blood sacrifice, and of obsession.” I’ve never thought about my own relentless desire to set the record straight when I am wrong or for someone to suffer the consequences when they leave me wounded as an obsession. But is there any other time in life when the desires of our flesh apart from God’s Spirit rises up with comparable power? There is no lust in the world as deviant nor as primal as the desire to be right.
Even in a community like Renovatus that is established on the notion of divine mercy (as a “church for people under renovation), the regular disruption of mercy stops just short of becoming routine. Perhaps because mercy is the one virtue that can never be routinized–it will always require the Holy Spirit. In the most unelegant metaphor of my life, you know when you are on the trail of a certain kind of animal because of the droppings they leave behind (as in “whoa…a horse walked through here not long ago.”) Whenever I stumble into (and indeed sometimes step into) signs of mercy along the path, however old or fresh, I always know…the Spirit has been through here.
I do not assume that you have any problems with Merton’s description of the disruptive nature of divine mercy. Although I would imagine that you might take issue with Merton’s language that “this of course is the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved–while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.” This goes back to the tendency towards universality I described yesterday. I can only offer this: as a person who takes Jesus at His word that He is the way, the truth and the life, I do not believe there are other paths to the Father except through Him. But whether or not you think Merton builds a bridge too far here, I must also say that my heart leaped at the phrase “the intolerable flippancy of the saved.”
The problem that Merton is driving at is a real one, as much so for an evangelical or a Pentecostal as for any other part of the body of Christ–that many who proclaim the cross of Christ get the message right but the tone wrong. Or perhaps they get the message right technically in a sermon, but wrong in demonstration. Thus we proclaim salvation through Christ’s cross, but in turn we contradict our message of God’s unconditional love by forgetting that mercy is what the cross is all about. This is why I, even in most sane moments, still find myself hopping mad when I see (and you will find evidence of this in recent blogs) Christians who get doctrines of salvation technically right but get the spirit of the doctrine wrong–making the cross into a weapon rather than a means of laying down our lives for the sake of the world.
You don’t have to get anywhere universalism to see that the message and the means are often inconsistent, or that the message and the tone are often inconsistent. And you certainly don’t have to be a universalist to recognize the “intolerable flippancy of the saved.” Which is why it is hard for me to hear about divine justice or judgment from people that are emotionally disconnected, smug in their own sense of righteousness and glib in their pronouncements on others. As I see over and over again in Revelation, in the same way Jesus is the faithful witness who has offered up His very life for the sake of the world, we now follow Him in our own sacrifice, “loving not our own lives even unto death” for the sake of bearing witness to God’s mercy alongside of Him.
Tuesday night, I preached in our Dust service on Matthew 5.9, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” as part of their series on the Beatitudes. Even as I was speaking, I felt God’s revelation enveloping my own heart, working against the consistency of my judgments with His ever surprising mercy. For even as one who is able to speak from Scripture (and even what I believe to be a divine unction from the Holy Spirit) on peace and peacemaking, there is still room for notable exceptions in my mind when it comes to people I am “justifiably” offended by. How easy it is for me to nail the doctrine of mercy with relentless precision, and in doing so not allow the disruption of mercy to terrorize my own heart.
Brother Merton, I feel you. And today my prayer is to be liberated from any and every form of the tyranny of law, and to be plunged into the bottomless, raging and entirely untamed sea of divine mercy.