And He told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself; ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
God’s mercy was an unknown (and seemingly unneeded) quantity to this Pharisee. Actually, it’s unknown to all of us, until certain things happen that bring it into focus. A.W. Tozer’s definition of the mercy of God is helpful here:
As judgment is God’s justice confronting moral inequity, so mercy is the goodness of God confronting human suffering and guilt. Were there no guilt in the world, no pain and no tears, God would yet be infinitely merciful; but His mercy might well remain hidden in His heart, unknown to the created universe. No voice would be raised to celebrate the mercy of which none felt the need. It is human misery and sin that call forth the divine mercy. (from The Knowledge of the Holy)
One of the characteristics of mercy is that it is undeserved goodness poured out in compassionate love. By very definition, then, mercy cannot be understood without a backdrop of failure, sin, and guilt. One cannot perceive God’s mercy extended to you personally, or enjoy its many benefits, until you begin to humbly understand how little you deserve it. And for some of us this involves a hard road.
The prodigal son left his father’s house because he didn’t deeply know his father (see Luke 15). Like Adam and Eve he had convinced himself that life outside the father’s close care and control would be more satisfying somehow. After some rough times he “came to his senses” and returned home to his father. He fully expected his father to be angry and so he had a plan to appease the father. He would humbly own and confess his sin, but would also forfeit any claim to sonship. Perhaps under these conditions his father would let him return as a simple slave.
But the father he met in the road was not the man he thought he knew. The prodigal’s father was full of mercy and treated him far better than he deserved or could have dreamed. The older brother was offended by the outpouring of mercy from the father upon the rebellious younger son. This shows that the older brother really didn’t know his father’s deepest heart and motives either!
But how could they have known? How could they percieve the depths of their father’s merciful love and compassion without a backdrop of sin and misery to illuminate it’s great depths? If both boys had continued to dutifully serve their father, without any personal sense of failure or guilt, would they not have considered their inheritance more as a right than a gift?
What if God’s great love revealed through extreme mercy is the crowning attribute of His glorious Being? What if the greatest part of our inheritance as God’s children can only be found when we come to really know and experience His extravagant mercy? Wouldn’t God be cruel to keep it hidden from us?
A precious lady recently asked me why God, though being all powerful and all knowing, would allow sin and suffering to ever enter His world in the first place. I think every thinking person has asked this question. Let me share a question in response:
What if the highest life and the most joyful existence can only be had as we come to know God in more of His fullness? And what if human sin and the suffering it has caused was necessary to bring us to deeply understand the heigth and depth and length and breadth of God’s most glorious and enduring attributes, like mercy and love? Would it be worth it?
Perhaps the words of the apostle Paul take on a deeper meaning now: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” (Romans 11:32) Did you get that? If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that it is because of God’s mercy that He has allowed sin to enter the world and to infect and affect each of us. Now that’s a paradigm shift for most of us!
I don’t pretend to understand all of this. But that which I have come to know and experience of God’s mercy tells me that it is worth it all. Even in a world filled with sin and suffering God can be deeply trusted to have our best interests in mind – and that from before time began! Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was not “plan B”. It was (and is) the crowning revelation of God’s mercy to man.
As I contemplate these things this morning, my soul is filled with wonder and awe. I must be the happiest man in the universe. Though God is not “safe”, He is merciful and kind and has always had our ultimate best interests in mind. I hope you too are learning to turn to Him more fully and to trust Him more deeply.