We—well, let me not put that on you—I need the weight of choice to fully understand mercy.
I need to write more about choice. I’ve been thinking about choice for a little bit longer than I’ve been thinking about grace. But a brief summary is that I think God gives us way more choices than we realize. So often we agonize over decisions. “Lord God, what is Your will? Should I go to this college or that college? Take this job or that job? Go to this house church/bible study or that one?” I think way more often than not, God’s response is, “What do you want?”
Making choices is how we grow in maturity. And we are called to be mature daughters and sons of our Father God. I’ve watched my friends give their children choices. “Do you want yogurt or cheerios for breakfast?” It does not matter which one the two year old picks. Yogurt is not better than cheerios. What matters is that she picks. For a timid child, giving them the option allows them to figure out their preferences and that their preferences matter. It helps them develop into themselves. For a strong willed child, picking what they want for breakfast gives them a proper avenue to voice their preferences, so that their will isn’t squashed by always hearing “No.” And as children grow, they are given more choices and more meaningful choices. This is important, because once they are adults, they will have to make their choices. If they don’t have practice—if they haven’t grown in maturity—then they won’t know now to make choices.
Now, before I get back to mercy, let me say that there are wrong choices. “Should I do an afterschool sport or do drugs?” Yes, doing drugs is a wrong choice. But many many more of the choices that we agonize over are not right or wrong choices.
So, considering mercy, if every situation has a right and a wrong answer, there isn’t much room to plea for mercy. If you choose the wrong answer, you deserve the consequences. That is our underlying, unspoken assumption. And with that assumption, we give lip service to grace and forgiveness. Job’s friends are the classic example of this. They knew that because all this bad stuff was happening, Job had chosen wrongly, and the bad stuff was a just consequence of that choice. Their advice was not to plea for God’s mercy, but to repent and accept the (presumably just) punishment.
But the thing about choices is that if I have free choices, so does everyone else. When I make a choice, it is rarely in isolation, and therefore my choice presents a choice to another person. The other person has to choose how they are going to respond to my action, my choice. I may desire a certain response. But making a free choice necessarily involves letting go of expectations of the other person’s response. And this is when I understood, I mean really understood, mercy.
When we are faced with choices—no, that’s wrong. We aren’t “faced” with choices. Rather, we are given choices. The ability to choose is a gift. But when we use our gift and choose, there is no guarantee how it will turn out, how another person will respond or how a situation will unfold. We can choose wisely and well, and things can still turn out badly, or painfully. Understanding and experiencing that, mercy now makes sense to me. Mercy more than makes sense, it becomes our desperate need and is a totally unmerited favor.
My favorite Hebrew word is “chesed”. It means steadfast, convenantal, love. It is often translated as loving kindness, but that’s kind of weak. “Steadfast love” captures it a bit better. But in other translations it is “mercy.” God’s covenant with us, His steadfast love, is a very merciful thing, healing us from the sin of our flat out wrong choices and from the painful outcomes of good choices.
When we are freed from the fatalism of the belief in one Right choice in every decision, we can grow in maturity. We can cry out for mercy, and believe that it will be given. Because God chooses to show us mercy.