About Mercy

One time I was getting a root canal and the endodontist took one look at me, found out my majors were English and Music, and flat out told my mother “Oh this one’ll never get a job, I can tell.” That root canal was a painful experience for a number of reasons, and after that comment the tears in my eyes weren’t really caused by the whine of the dentist drill.

However, you know what they say: sticks and stones may break my bones, but comments made by complete strangers over a dentistry chair will never hurt me. Or something like that.

It seems pretty clear that people have a hard time seeing any practical value in the majors I chose. The assumption is something along the lines of “Oh, so you want to teach?” Welllllll. No, not exactly. I promise I do have ambitions for my life other than to sit in my parents’ basement and read all day and all night, but in college, I’ve loved studying what I enjoy. And I guess that’s why I picked English, and why I actually stuck it out with Music.

I’m thinking maybe those people who assume I’ll be a teacher someday are right–because if you love something enough, you’re likely going to tell people about it. People are evangelistic about their passions. Maybe I will become a teacher of sorts; maybe I will become a nerd.

I don’t know that much, but I can tell you about what I’ve been learning lately. Usually I reserve this sort of raving about English Literature to one (or sometimes two) friends, but tonight there’s several things I’ve thought about. There are three authors, mainly: a guy named William Shakespeare, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and a poet named Edward Rowland Sill, who was not only decidedly not a contemporary of the previous two, but was also not their countryman. He was born in Connecticut in 1841 and I don’t know much else about him. I’m not sure anyone does.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters makes a lovely speech about the ‘quality of mercy.’ It’s a well-known section, so you may recognize it:

“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.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likst God’s 

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice, none of us 

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy (MOV IV. i. 184-203)

Perhaps it’s more beautiful in the context of the play, but I can’t get over it. I can’t get over the concept of mercy, which is odd because I often go about my day more-or-less unconcerned that I trust in a just and merciful God. The Sill poem I’ll include further down talks more about this lack of mercy in the world–it proposes that, while good men may be just, anyone who recognizes his own foolishness must plead to God for mercy, because God is the only one who grants grace.

I think there must be a balance there that’s hard to grasp: understanding both the bad news of the Gospel–that we’re all sinners deserving of death–and the wildly good news that Christ offers grace. Sometimes we downplay the bad news and say that we’re not really that bad–or, as Dorothy Sayers says, we consciously or unconsciously think God’s standards too picky or unrealistic to be worth striving for. From The Mind of the Maker: “The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling.”

Other times perhaps we think of grace as something God owes us. To be fair, we think, God has to offer grace to everyone. But that’s starting to sound more like justice, which God does extend to everyone. God is just. And that justice would lead to one sentence for everyone, were God not also merciful…

Anyway,

In Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character is thinking through all the things he’s learned in his study of various disciplines. One of these is divinity, which he rejects on the basis that man’s nature compels him to sin, and since sin’s wages are everlasting death, there is no hope or recourse to be found. That seems logical, and it might be true except that Faustus leaves off the second part of the verse he quotes. In the verse Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Faustus stops after the word “death.” He doesn’t consider the “gospell-y” part of the verse. Nor does he accept that he does have sin; rather, he’s so proud of all his learning that ultimately he desires to be as God.

If you haven’t read Faustus, I’ll just tell you now–it all kind of goes downhill from there.

So here’s my favorite of the three things that’ve been going through my head:

The Fool’s Prayer, by Edward Roland Sill

It’s pretty long, so if you’re interested, there’s an external site you can find it on. It’s beautiful, and I think it speaks for itself pretty well, so I won’t ramble on about it, except to say it always reminds me how precious God’s mercy is–and how undeserved.

I just finished a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by a man named Nabeel Qureshi. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Near the end, when contemplating the incredible pain his conversion to Christianity will cause himself and his family, he reads Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, verse 6, and writes the following:

“I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I do, but I can never attain it. God will bless me anyway? Who is this God who loves me so much, even in my failures?” (Qureshi, 276)

Having grown up with the concept of grace, I take it for granted. That’s crazy. These are things I’ve been thinking through, and if you want to chime in, comment away:)

Have a lovely day, and thanks for reading.

<><Jo

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