We’ve finally started our drive east. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride I hope to share with you at a later date. For now, I’ve finally finished my reflection on the Kierkegaard piece I mentioned a month ago. Thanks for your patience as I struggled to find words amidst boxes, changing departure dates, and a job falling through – a lot has happened in the past month!
Mercifulness, a Work of Love
My last post was about Jennifer Toledo’s vision of a weeping room in which God sees every injustice and where He spends the majority of His time. As I reflected on dwelling with Christ in the weeping room rather than rushing into my own version of the strategy room, I was reminded of a chapter I recently read in Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.
The chapter is called “Mercifulness, a Work of Love, Even if It Can Give Nothing and Is Capable of Doing Nothing.” Though Kierkegaard focuses on mercifulness in this piece, the concepts he discusses are closely related to justice.
Mercy and justice are intimately connected in the Bible as well. Micah 6:8 commands God’s people to do justice and to love mercy, as well as to walk humbly with the Lord. Zechariah 7:9-10 states that true justice is practicing mercy.
Given this strong biblical association between justice and mercy, let us consider how to live a just life in light of Kierkegaard’s understanding of mercifulness.
Justice Expressed as Mercy
Kierkegaard differentiates mercy from charity, considering the latter as generally associated with financial altruism. He emphasizes the state of a person’s heart toward others over the effectiveness of his or her actions. Though the world measures benevolence in terms of making temporal, materialistic differences, the eternal looks at the state of one’s heart.
Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes.
Justice in a worldly sense tends to be seen as changing the circumstances facing the oppressed. In the world’s terms, “the main thing is still this, that need be met in every way, and that everything possible be done to remedy every need.”1
This understanding manifests itself in the modern world as popular movements and causes accompanied by t-shirts, tote bags, and bracelets, as well as fundraising reports that showcase measurable results. “An activist conception of need”2 dominates modern Christian thinking on justice.
Photo courtesy of Rooey202.
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Paoletti.
In contrast, biblical justice focuses on righteousness, love, faithfulness – and mercy.
Kierkegaard defines mercifulness as having a heart in one’s bosom, as “sympathy for another’s wretchedness.”3 Mercifulness in these terms is concerned with the state of one’s heart toward others, much like biblical justice is concerned with the state of one’s relationships with others and with God.
“Mercifulness is able to do nothing,” says Kierkegaard.4 He propounds having mercy out of love for others, not charity for the sake of accomplishing some end.
He offers the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37 as an example, arguing that if the Samaritan had been able to do nothing but hold the half-dead man on the side of the road, he would have been just as merciful as he was in bandaging his wounds and paying for a room while the man recovered.
If the Samaritan had had nothing with which to bind the man’s wounds, no horse on which to carry him away, and no money to pay for a room, he could nevertheless have offered the “greater perfection”5 of being merciful – having compassion on the man and offering his love and presence. “One can be merciful without being able to do the slightest,” Kierkegaard argues.6
Photo courtesy of Father Lawrence Lew.
Yet, Kierkegaard does not say if we have the means to help we are to daftly sit by and watch the man die. For “if the merciful person can do something, he does it most gladly.”7 The point Kierkegaard wants to make is not that the material does not matter, but that “mercifulness can be seen in both cases…in the everything which the powerful do and in the nothing which the wretched do.”8
Tension arises for me in that it seems there is so much I should be able to do as an educated young person in one of the wealthiest, freest countries in the world. Even when I begin with mercy, I feel pressure and eagerness to change the world, to relieve the harrowing circumstances in which so many people live. Mercy quickly gives way to self-sufficiency and “doing good.”9
This is when I rush into my own version of what Jennifer Toledo refers to as the strategy room. Fixing the problems becomes more important to me than having mercy, and weeping with the Lord does not seem enough.
If I focus instead on my inward state toward God and others – if the main thing becomes mercy again – then appropriate action flows forth10 without the action becoming the point.
I want to do what is good and right simply because it is good and right – not because of whatever end it may accomplish. As the Bible teaches in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”11
Though I meet the needs of everyone around me but have not mercy, I am nothing. “Even if aid were given in every need…this wretchedness, that mercifulness was not practiced at all, would be greater than all temporal need.”12
Let us “learn from the eternal”13 this love and mercy of which Kierkegaard speaks. Let us draw near to the Lord to examine ourselves and all that drives us. Let the main thing be mercy learned by sitting at the feet of Jesus.
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p. 301.
3. Kierkegaard, 298.
4. Kierkegaard, 299
11. New King James Version.