Commitment & cow pies
Someone has written that when a couple first gets together, or when a new friendship forms, the relationship is like a huge beautiful farm before you. You look out into the future, and you see crops and flowers and trees and rolling hills. And that beauty is what you see in each other.
But inevitably at some point, you begin to step in cow pies. Some seasons the cow pies may seem to be everywhere. These are the sins and flaws and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses and annoying habits in you and in your partner or friend.
The risk is that they have a way of dominating the relationship. It may not even be true, but sometimes it feels like that’s all there is—is cow pies. But mercy takes cow pies and turns them into a compost pile.
Mercy is when you look at each other and admit that there are a lot of cow pies. But you also decide: there’s more to this relationship than cow pies. So let’s throw them all on the compost pile. When we have to, we will go there and smell it and deal with it the best we can. And then we’re going to step back from the pile and set our eyes on the rest of our field, the whole farm. We’re not going to let the manure rob us of all the potential in the marriage or friendship.
Adapted from John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Crossway Books, 2009), p. 59)
That parable brings us to this week’s key to happiness straight from Jesus. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares…
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” – Matthew 5:7
Blessing flows to those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. It’s those who show mercy who will be shown mercy. That’s the blessing. That’s where happiness is going to come. You will get what you give.
If your conversations and posts are marked by meanness and hypercriticism, then guess what’s going to come back and bite you? Whereas if you will speak and act with mercy leading the way, in time that’s what others are going to extend to you. God’s blessing comes to those who are merciful because they—the merciful—will be shown mercy.
If you’ll learn how to let mercy lead, it’s going to change and improve your work relationships, your marriage, your parenting, your friendships, the relationships with your extended family, any other relationships you’ve got, if you learn to let mercy lead, just like Jesus did.
What do we mean by mercy? What’s the kind of mercy that Jesus showed, that Christians are called to emulate? Let me give you a simple but very challenging definition. Here it is:
- Mercy is looking beyond a person’s faults to see their need.
- Mercy is showing kindness and compassion where it’s unexpected and undeserved.
- Mercy has always been Jesus’ go-to response to people’s need.
- Grace has always been Jesus’ response to people’s sin.
- Mercy looks beyond a person’s faults to see their need.
But what about sin?
Let’s address an objection that might be forming in your mind already. What about sin? What about the damage that sin does—to the individual trapped in it, to their family, to friendships in the church and work and elsewhere? What about sin?
Here’s what we can say without apology: Mercy neither denies sin nor downplays it. It simply chooses to respond to that person’s need instead of react to that person’s sin. Mercy chooses to respond to that person’s need instead of react against that person’s sin. We’re to let mercy lead.
Mercy in action
A powerful mercy story came out of the Gulf War in Iraq several years back. Medical teams at an American triage field hospital were doing their best to save the lives of two Iraqi insurgents. They were the enemy. The team had tried everything possible to save the insurgents’ lives, but one of them wasn’t going to make it unless he got 30 pints of blood.
A call went out for volunteer donors, and dozens of American soldiers voluntarily lined up to donate blood to save the life of an enemy. At the head of the line was a battle-hardened soldier named Brian. When he was asked if it mattered to him that he was giving his blood to an enemy soldier, Brian replied, “A human life is a human life.” That’s mercy, letting mercy lead—extending unexpected and undeserved kindness toward a person in need. Mercy is looking beyond a person’s faults to see their need.
This is what Jesus constantly did. It is not how most people, including religious people, naturally respond. It is how we as Christians are called to act—to let mercy lead; to respond to that person’s need instead of react against that person’s sin.
Mercy like Jesus extended it
One of the best places to look at the life of Jesus for how he handled the place of mercy in the face of someone’s sin is found in Luke chapter 7. I want to tell you the story. It’s such an attractive demonstration of the power of letting mercy lead. Here’s how it goes.
A Pharisee invites Jesus over for dinner. Pharisees were very religious laymen. These are the local church elders in today’s setting. These are the church board members. These are the most dedicated believers. These are the ones who are considered the godliest people in town. But the story takes an unexpected twist. Here’s how Luke tells it:
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”
Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.” 3
“Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.
Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
“That’s right,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.
“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven. She has shown that she understands this by her great acts of love. But whoever has been forgiven only a little loves only a little.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”
And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Letting mercy lead
That, my friends, is letting mercy lead. Simon the Pharisee and his religious buddies completely missed it—as do a lot of religious people today. We want to guard the purity of the church. We want to defend the truth. We want to uphold moral purity. Those all have their place.
But what Jesus did—and he must be our example—is look beyond her sin, to her need, which was forgiveness. She didn’t need anyone to tell her she was a sinner. She knew it. She didn’t need to be judged as Simon and his buddies did; she had already judged herself. She already felt her need for God.
And in Jesus, finally she believed she had found a man of God; a man who would neither lust after her or stand in judgment against her. Those are probably the only two responses she had ever experienced from the men in her life: lust or judgment. They had only either exploited her or condemned her.
But not Jesus. And so not us. He saw her as more than merely an immoral person, a person with a past. He saw what she needed most. What she needed most wasn’t a man. It was mercy.
Mercy looks beyond a person’s faults to see their need. Mercy chooses to respond to that person’s need instead of react against that person’s sin. That is what Jesus did. And it’s what we as Christians are called to, nothing less. “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus declares, “for they will be shown mercy.”
Boiling it all down
One of my favorite things is to find the places in the Bible where the whole journey of following Jesus is summarized, boiled down, put in the clearest terms. Here’s one from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the prophet Micah:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 4
Do you know why the Holy Spirit led Micah to write this? Because of people like Simon the Pharisee and his buddies sitting around the table judging that woman. The people of Micah’s day saw the value of their religious sacrifices—and there was value to that. But they missed the great value in God’s eyes of doing what’s right, loving mercy, and staying humble before God.
Maybe you want to look this verse up and print it out and keep it with you and review it from time to time, until it seeps in and softens your heart from reacting against people’s sin, to seeing their need for mercy. Let mercy lead, just like Jesus. This is what God is looking for from his people:
- Do what’s right.
- Let mercy lead.
- Stay humble before Him.
It’s a short list. And it’s a worthy pursuit.
But again, what about sin?
Let’s dig deeper in case anyone thinks I’m saying we ought to ignore sin or just say anything goes.
Mercy doesn’t deny sin. It looks beyond sin to what this person can become. It’s a different perspective.
Three times in Luke’s story, the woman is identified as a sinner. There’s no denying it or ignoring it. Jesus gets to her sin. Even says they are many. But he leads…with mercy. What draws her to Jesus…is his mercy. What gives her saving faith…is the mercy with which Jesus leads.
While Simon and pals are feeling all righteous and angry, Jesus is seeing her need and responding with mercy. He chooses to respond to her need instead of react against her sin. And in the process, she feels her need, believes in Jesus, and is saved. Her sins are forgiven—not because they were confronted, but because she was welcomed.
If this grates against you, all I can say is two things:
- Have a little talk with Jesus.
- Have a little talk with me. I promise to listen.
And I’ll urge you to compare your gut to the gospel, to how God deals with us. While we were still sinners, Romans 5:8 declares, Christ died for us. While others are still sinners, we need to treat them mercifully. This is what God calls us to: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
Mercy looks beyond a person’s faults to see their need. Mercy chooses to respond to that person’s need instead of react against that person’s sin. This is what we’re going to be about.
No perfect people allowed
I have a friend who used to work at the Fishers YMCA who moved to Austin, Texas. A while back, a small group of Christians in Austin decided to try to be a church that lets mercy lead.
They determined to try to look beyond people’s sin, to their need. Here’s how they started. They did some research into the lifestyles of people under 40 in the U.S., and here’s what they discovered:
One out of every three women have had an abortion. Nearly two out of every six women have been sexually molested. Most men have struggled with pornography. Most singles have been sexually active. Six out of ten think that living together before marriage is a good idea. Five out of ten already have. One of every seven have abused drugs or alcohol. And 85% in Austin will be unchurched.
That little group decided if they were going to reach the people around them who were unchurched, who had the same need as the woman Luke describes, they were going to have to create a different kind of culture in their church. They decided to call it a “Come-As -You-Are” culture.
They decided they would welcome people to their church no matter what they looked like or lived like; they would meet as they are, without passing judgment, and mercifully point them to Jesus, who can do for them what he did for the woman at dinner that day.
They decided that they would not allow their church to be a modern-day version of Simon the Pharisee and his pals. So on their first day as a church, their launch Sunday, they adopted a motto: No Perfect People Allowed.
Here’s the bottom line: they’ve had a lot of people experience the same mercy that woman did, believe in Jesus to forgive them, and they’ve gone on to begin changing and growing in Christlikeness themselves. And the whole story, every part of it, flows from a small group of Christians who consciously chose to do what Jesus does—look beyond the person’s sin, to see their need. They let mercy lead.
What do I mean by that? They look beyond people’s fault and see their need. They don’t ignore sin. They don’t excuse it or sweep it under the rug or pretend sin doesn’t matter. Just like in Luke’s story: three times the woman is identified as a sinner. Jesus himself spoke of her sin when he spoke to her. But again, what we see in Jesus is that mercy chooses to respond to the need, instead of reacting against the sin. Mercy looks beyond where the person is now, to where they can get to with Jesus in their life.
Mercy in action at yChurch
So…as we look forward to relaunching likely this fall, are immoral people welcome at yChurch? Yes!
Are gossips and liars and prickly people welcome? Yes.
Are 21st-century Pharisees welcome? Yes. We’ll let mercy lead there, too. And we’ll have conversations about mercy over condemnation, about mercifully welcoming those who need Jesus, which is…everyone. Your neighbor. Your coworker. Your extended family members. Your long-time friends. We will look beyond their sin, to their need. We will let mercy lead.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus declares, “for they will be shown mercy.” You’ll get what you give.
Seeing beyond the grime
Think of it this way. In 1990 in Ireland, a group of Jesuit priests asked an art restorer to come clean up a painting they had hanging in their dining room. Sergio Benedetti worked a block away, and so he agreed to swing by after work. When Benedetti saw the painting, covered in grime from hundreds of years of candle soot and exposure, something about it caught his eye.
He drew up close and noticed the quality of the brushwork. He took the painting, believing it to be a copy of a Caravaggio painting lost to history. But as he carefully undertook the restoration process, it became clear that this was no copy. It was the original masterpiece in which Caravaggio portrays the taking of Christ, Jesus’ arrest. I want you to see it as it is now, on display in a museum in Dublin.
Do you focus on the masterpiece or the grime?
Here’s the question for this week: If you found a Caravaggio covered in grime, which would you focus on—the masterpiece or the grime? Truth is, it’s easy to focus on the yuck. It’s normal. It’s typical. It happens all the time:
- A great work of art gets handed off at a garage sale for twenty bucks, but turns out to be worth multiples more. Opportunity lost.
- A man or woman or child created in the image of God gets written off or looked over because of their flaws and sins, instead of being mercifully welcomed into the church, where they can find forgiveness and receive the power to begin growing and changing.
We want to be a church that focuses on the masterpiece. And yes, of course, in time, you have to do something about the dirt. You find someone qualified to help clean up the masterpiece without damaging it, without tearing it. But your initial response and your go-to response is to do what Jesus did: let mercy lead, and look for the masterpiece behind the grime.
We want to be a church that sees a man or woman or child as this is someone who has been created in God’s image for the purpose of glorifying God and enjoying him forever, with his people around them. And so where modern-day Simons major on others’ sins and failures, we will major on others’ potential as a child of God and a member of Jesus’ church.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Count us in for showing kindness and compassion where it’s unexpected and undeserved—just like God did for us while we were still sinners. This is the kind of church we are called to be, and will be.
Would you pray with me?
Lord, we want your blessing. And so we commit ourselves to be people who are marked by mercy, who let mercy lead. Empower us, we pray, to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Make us, we pray, more like Jesus in this. Where the natural tendency is to be quick to condemn, bring us back to how you dealt with us, how you deal with us present-tense, with jaw-dropping mercy. Bless us, we pray, and make us a blessing to the people you have in our lives, that others, through us showing mercy, may be drawn to saving faith in Jesus themselves, and love much, as they experience being forgiven much. Hear our prayer, God, as we come to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!