Thomas Merton on mercy

Thomas Merton on mercy November 16, 2011

I’ve been reading about a chapter a week of Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island for the past couple of months. The 11th chapter on mercy has some really good material that’s worth quoting and contemplating, so I thought I would share.

God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness: not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts. 208

This is a new angle on the age-old question of why a good God allows for sin to happen. Many people answer this question by saying that God gave us free will so that we could choose to love Him because love would be a meaningless experience if we were programmed to love God. The answer Merton gives is more robust to me. It is better to have a community of redeemed sinners who show each other mercy than a world of self-righteous, self-sufficient perfectionists who follow the law to the letter but have no grace for each other.

Only the lost are saved. Only the sinner is justified. Only the dead can rise from the dead… Some men are only virtuous enough to forget that they are sinners without being wretched enough to remember how much they need the mercy of God. 208-209

People who are virtuous enough to forget that they are sinners are in a more perilous spiritual position than those who are wretched enough to know their need for the mercy of God. The prayer of the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” will always get a better answer than the prayer of the Pharisee, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men.”

In the holiness of God, all extremes meet–infinite mercy and justice, infinite love and endless hatred of sin, infinite power and limitless condescension to the weakness of His creatures. His holiness is the cumulation of all His other attributes… Yet the supreme manifestation of God’s holiness is the death of Christ on the Cross. 210

I really appreciate this understanding of God’s holiness. What has always been repugnant to me is the way that holiness gets reduced to an allergy to imperfection in the canned pop evangelical gospel. My understanding of the holiness of God is shaped by the account of the divine throne room in Isaiah 6 in which the seraphs flying around the throne say, “holy, holy, holy,” and Isaiah says, “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” God’s holiness doesn’t make our ugliness intolerable to Him; it makes His beauty intolerable to us. That is the problem that Christ’s atonement has to resolve. When the cross’s scandal and brutality is packaged safely in a catechistic atonement theory that Christian pop stars can write love songs about, then the cross has lost its holiness.

We must adore and acknowledge God’s holiness by desiring Him to have mercy on us, and this is the beginning of all justice. To desire Him to be merciful to us is to acknowledge Him as God. To seek His pity when we deserve no pity is to ask Him to be just with a justice so holy that it knows no evil and shows mercy to everyone who does not fly from Him in despair. 210

It is very interesting to see Merton ground justice in the desire for God to have mercy on us. Tim Keller does the exact same thing in his book Generous Justice. Justice is so much deeper than making sure the punishment fits the crime, which is the reductionist mathematical meaning it has taken in modernity. Truly just people know that whatever good they do is to God’s credit alone and they consider it a manifestation of God’s mercy that they are allowed to participate in His goodness.

We can have the mercy of God whenever we want it, by being merciful to others: for it is God’s mercy that acts on them, through us, when He leads us to treat them as He is treating us. His mercy sanctifies our own poverty by the compassion that we feel for their poverty, as if it were our own. 211

This paragraph honestly raises some red flags for me because it could be interpreted to say that being merciful itself is how we earn God’s mercy, which would fundamentally contradict the meaning of mercy. I do think it’s legitimate to say that we have the mercy of God when we are merciful. Mercy cannot be “had” like a possession; it is rather something that is God’s possession which passes through us as vessels to other people. We are blessed by and reminded of God’s mercy for us when we show mercy to others. That’s what it means to “have” God’s mercy. It is part of our sanctification to show mercy to other people, though I’m sure that Merton would be quick to say this isn’t the only thing necessary.

Filling us with divine charity and calling us to love Him as He has first loved us and to love other men as He has loved us all, God’s mercy makes it possible for us to give full satisfaction to His justice. The justice of God can, therefore, be best satisfied by the effects of His own mercy. Those who refuse His mercy satisfy His justice in another way. Without His mercy, they cannot love Him. Without love for Him they cannot be “justified” or “made just.” That is to say: they cannot conform to Him Who is love… It is their own injustice that is condemned by His justice. And in what does their injustice consist? In the refusal of His mercy. 213-214

This paragraph I imagine would be scandalous to the Calvinist crowd because it makes the satisfaction of God’s justice something in which we participate rather than the exclusive purview of the cross. Of course, to a Wesleyan like me, the justification of the cross is not merely an arbitrary juridical ruling but rather an empowering liberation that makes it possible for me to become just (which occurs to the degree that I abdicate my own free agency and surrender to the Holy Spirit). Again, the way Merton defines a just person is to say that it is not merely someone who gives people what they deserve which is the form justice takes in a market-based view of the world; a just person is someone who recognizes his/her complete dependence upon God and, so doing, is able to be conformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of God.

I hope that some of these quotes are thought-provoking. I know that they will not be agreeable to everyone. Please dialogue with me if you disagree with Merton’s assessment of things. God bless!

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