Forbearance to Inflict Harm: Practical Mercy
by Ray DeGraw
[On Sundays this year we are publishing a series from Ray that focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, analyzing each characteristic of godliness found in Matthew 5-7. Essay 1, Essay 2, Essay 3, Essay 4, Essay 5, Essay 6, Essay 7, Essay 8, Essay 9, Essay 10.]
Being merciful might be categorized initially as being willing to forgive, but I think it is more fundamental than forgiving. Remember, one of the core definitions of mercy is “forbearance to inflict harm when one has the power to do so,” and I think there is a fundamental difference between forgiving and not harming. I think that we often focus so much on the first one (forgiving) that we sometimes forget about the second one (not harming), and forbearance to inflict harm must occur BEFORE true and total forgiveness can take place.This is because forgiveness is focused on the offending person and is, as all who have been offended understand, a process that can vary radically in length, from nearly instantaneous to a lifetime.
In order to forgive, one must first be harmed in some way, but, more fundamentally, one must recognize that one has been harmed. Someone can harm me (and do so to a great degree), but if I am not aware of it (like instances of libel or slander that do not come to my attention) I cannot forgive. Forgiving requires an understanding of harm, and requires an extension of mercy, by not demanding punishment that would constitute justice. In other words, if I am unable to extend mercy by forbearing to inflict harm when it is in my power to do so (even when it is justified), I will be unable to forgive. This, in turn, will make me a bitter person, which will compel me to continue to judge and withhold mercy, which usually, if not always, will be done unrighteously (not in accordance with God’s understanding and will), which will, therefore, place me outside God’s own mercy for my own transgressions. Only if I offer mercy to others will I be able to obtain mercy from God.
Forgiving what someone does to me requires that I proactively do something for them, extend the hand of mercy and not strike back. I have never considered “turning the other cheek” as an application of mercy, but this defines it squarely as a merciful act. This puts a new and compelling twist on the scripture I have read many times in my life but never had seen quite this way:
For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 5:25)
I have read compassion in this verse (and others that use the same statement), but I have never framed it in terms of mercy. Each instance describes a case when the people of Israel have done things to reject their Lord, and each instance mentions the anger of the Lord at this rejection and the just result of that rejection. However, each verse ends by saying that His “hand is stretched out still.”
The footnotes to Isaiah 9:12 (which contains the same phrase) provide the following additional clarification:
IE in spite of all, the Lord is available if they will turn to him.
This is mercy at its most basic level.
In the grand scheme of things, being merciful might be the clearest, most practical way to define and understand forgiveness. If you truly have forgiven, you will not seek or do anything to inflict harm, either physical, financial, emotional or spiritual. You will, in a very real and figurative sense, “turn the other cheek,” even in situations where legal consequences must unfold. You must forbear to inflict whatever harm lies within your own power to cause.
PS. This also points out something I have said often – that we cannot forgive someone who has not harmed us. It is demeaning to the person who truly has been harmed for me to claim to forgive the person who caused the harm if I was not harmed by that person. It is cheap or easy forgiveness, and it is destructive, specifically because it mocks the suffering of the harmed and makes her difficulty to extend mercy and forgiveness seem like something that should not be so difficult. Claiming to forgive someone who has not harmed me is like claiming authority to absolve a criminal without the power of one who has been given the authority to administer mercy or justice. In a very real sense, it is a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as it assumes His title as Judge without the actual authority of judicial assignment.
One of the cruelest things possible to utter to a victim of any harm is:
“I forgave the perpetrator. Why can’t you?”