Something Better Than Mercy – The Value of Compassion

Something Better Than Mercy – The Value of Compassion January 2, 2024

The Value of Compassion

The Value of Compassion
Photo by Ron Lach :

I still remember where I was when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001. I was a pastor at my first church and sitting in the office. Technology was not what it is today, but it was easy to find coverage and immediately I was fielding calls and trying to make sense of what we saw repeatedly on television for the next few days.

Three days later, President Bush addressed the nation and the survivors at ground zero and I felt it with him. We all knew what they did was wrong. It was egregious and it deserved answering in a meaningful way. Many things happened over the years that followed, including the execution of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden and the United States finally withdrew troops from Afghanistan after 20 years.

What most Americans wanted on September 12, 2001, was retribution. It has been my way of life for as long as I can remember. Only recently have I begun to reconsider retributive justice. Retribution is because they did something wrong. It only seems natural to pay them back! We feel like if we pay them back, then they may not do it again and we will all feel better. But overall, retribution is not what Jesus taught and it was not the practice of the early church until it joined with the Empire centuries later.

My views of God are changing, but I am still captivated by Jesus, and I strongly want to adopt a more restorative, less retributive view of God. Our first inclination is to make people pay for what they do. The question is not whether they did wrong, but whether God or humans should respond in a retributive way.

Whatever label we use to describe God, His energy is restorative and not retributive. I think the image we have of God’s vengeance is more of what we have projected onto Him, not how He or She is. I do not believe the inclination should be to torture, punish, hurt, or kill others because of what they have done—even if they did wrong things. Vengeance is a human emotion and will never help people heal. It never solves problems and only proliferates the retributive nature of man.

Why do I mention this?

I was thinking about the Jesus prayer the other day. As you know, it is a quote from a tax collector, in the Bible, who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The real problem I have with the Jesus prayer 20 years after 9/11 is if we are supposed to pray for mercy, then that means God is still retributive. Mercy is a response—it is appeasement. The ancient meaning aligns with our current understanding. It is “not getting what we deserve.”

I know that sometimes I am retributive. I understand that victims of various things want justice and what they mean by justice is retribution. But I still cannot see God that way because Jesus was not retributive. And if I cannot see God that way, then mercy is not a very noble thing to pray for because it does not apply.

I know that Jesus condones the prayer, but I can only assume he meant something much different than what we would understand mercy to be or even that the writers misinterpreted his words. Both of those things are plausible, and I do not care to go down that long winding road that others have traveled before.

I think what I want to discover is a better word than mercy since mercy, by nature, incorporates a penal nature and other negative energy. When I think of mercy, I think of an upside-down bug wiggling its legs and begging for reprieve. A person asking for mercy would be saying to someone “Don’t hurt me,” “Don’t beat me,” “Don’t torture me,” or “Don’t kill me.”  People break the rules and hurt each other, but retribution and mercy are not the answer—I have a better word.

The word is compassion.

As you may know, when we do a focusing session, it often involves the inner child. When we are present with that part of ourselves, we often find the most appropriate disposition is compassion. Compassion for that part of us helps it heal from trauma, but we have also discovered that compassion is also necessary for the inner critic.

It is an illustration of what could happen in other parts of our lives and world if we learned to be compassionate. If we pray to God, we could ask Him for compassion instead of mercy. If we wanted to put it all into action, compassion would solve more problems than mercy because of a simple fact.

Mercy only gets us off the hook—Compassion can heal us.

If we are “OF God,” I think we can learn to be more compassionate. When we go inside, we will find this compassionate part of us that not only can heal our inner child, but also help us go out into the world and help others.

When I think back on September 11th, I wonder what I would do if something like that happened tomorrow. I do not imagine our current President would handle it any differently than Bush, and most Americans would still vow revenge for the obvious wrong of attacking the United States. I believe in the police function and defense of the country. But it is hard to go down the painful road of retribution anymore.

Somewhere in the flurry of emotions and concern for my children, I hope I can find compassion.

Be where you are, be who you are, and be at peace!

Karl Forehand

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Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward,  Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity.  He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community.  He is married to his wife Laura of 35 years and has one dog named Winston.  His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.

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