“The quality of mercy is not strained.” If Shakespeare is right to say that mercy flows freely from people, we would have to conclude that most of us don’t have much mercy to give out. We rarely forgive those who cut in front of us in traffic, or who make a joking remark that we find offensive. Some of us hold such grudges for years. How likely are we, then, to show mercy to a genuine enemy?
In The Splitting Storm by Rene Gutteridge, FBI agent Mick Kline takes it upon himself to track down his brother’s killer. Convinced that the culprit is actually a serial killer, he chases leads that ultimately take him to Bakerville, Texas. There he meets Faith Kemper, a blind woman who may be another of the killer’s victims. He also tracks down a local man that he believes to be the murderer he seeks. Convinced of his guilt, he prepares to rush into the man’s apartment to avenge his brother.
But there are problems, much like those faced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To begin with, Mick is simply not a killer. Like most real FBI agents, he doesn’t actually spend much time waving a gun around like a policeman, but is actually a desk jockey. An accountant, in fact. What’s more, as an FBI agent, he’s sworn to uphold the law, not pursue personal vendettas whenever he feels it’s justified. He’s also not sanctioned to investigate this case, since his supervisor doesn’t buy his “serial killer” theory, and had forced him to take a temporary leave. To top it all off, Mick is a Christian, and he knows how God feels about people taking their own vengeance on one another.
With all of these factors swaying him, Mick must decide whether to satisfy his wrath or his conscience.
Mick stood there, holding the door, wondering if this was the right thing to do. He knew that lying underneath his nervousness was a solid layer of anger.
Would he be able to talk to [the man]? Would [the man] talk to him?
Mick’s fingers glided over the gun’s metal.
Suddenly he stepped back out into the night air, allowing the door to close.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:43-44). The natural question is, Why should we? Christians make the effort to do so because Jesus commands it. We can all strive to do so because it demonstrates the power of love, and squelches the growing hatred building inside us when we refuse to show mercy.
Of course, most of us won’t have to choose whether to take revenge on someone who murdered our loved ones. Or even someone who crippled us, robbed us of our life savings, or burned down our house.
But to prepare ourselves to be people of mercy, in case we ever have to face such huge decisions of conscience, we can start small. Forgiving those who interrupt us, or fail to pay close attention. Forgiving those who forget to take out the trash or do the laundry. Forgiving those who show no interest in what excites us most.
Then we can move on to forgiving bigger offenses. People who purposely insult us or gossip about us behind our backs. People who ram into us on the playing field or try to pressure us to compromise our principles on the job. People who ridicule our beliefs, our families, our income level, or our dreams, and persuade others to do the same. Those people are harder to forgive, because their attacks were deliberate.
We often justify our lack of mercy and forgiveness by reminding ourselves of how awful the other person’s crime was. But in so doing, we miss the purpose of mercy. Though our enemies can reap the benefits, it’s not really for them. It’s for us.
If those people who hurt us choose to acknowledge our forgiveness – a forgiveness they don’t deserve – they might change their ways. You could help set them on a different path, so that others won’t have to suffer what you’ve suffered. If they don’t, that is their decision. But you will have abandoned a life of self-consuming wrath, to become a person of mercy.
The quality of mercy is, in fact, not strained at all. It takes no real effort or physical endurance to build up the strength to forgive.
It’s a simple decision.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
The Merchant of Venice
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Thursday, September 25th, 2008