Mercy: “Judge Not, that Ye Be Not Judged”
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.]
I want to repeat the definitions of mercy cited in my essay last Sunday and discuss the implications of each one briefly. I think this will be a relatively short essay, but it hit me hard when I first considered this specific concept. I am going to change the emphasis just a bit from the last essay; instead of focusing on mercy in its definitions, I am going to focus on the human employment of mercy – being merciful.
As I said last week, mercy is:
1) leniency and compassion shown toward offenders by a person or agency charged with administering justice;
2) Forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it.
These definitions make it clear that there are two distinct situations where mercy can be appropriate: 1) when someone has authority to administer justice, and 2) when someone has the power to inflict harm – especially when harm is justified under provocation. It is the difference between inflicting harm and administering justice about which I am writing this week – and how that relates to being merciful and being just.
The first situation requires a legitimate judge – someone who has been “charged with administering justice.” We are told in scriptures that we are not judges, and in our own local congregations it is the bishop, and only the bishop, who has been thus “charged.” Therefore, becoming more merciful applies to most of us only in the second sense of the word – “forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it.”
Why is this?
I believe it is because not one of us sees everything that must go into a righteous judgment clearly enough to make such a judgment. Righteous means right with God, so a righteous judgment would be one that is consistent with what God would judge, knowing all the facts perfectly (completely and wholly). Since we “see through a glass darkly“, we must err on the side of mercy and not “inflict harm” whenever possible. God, however, sees “face to face,” so He is able to judge righteous judgment. God can be just; our natural man cannot be just; our only hope of judging righteous judgment is to be in tune with the Holy Ghost, so that we can discern the will of God.
Bishops are able to act as judges in Israel specifically because they have been “charged with administering justice” – have been given the keys of discernment, if you will, to know what actions to take that would be consistent with the will of God. This is the main reason that disciplinary actions can vary so radically, even when the objective facts seem to be similar or even identical. There is SO much more that cannot be seen that affects what is truly just in each situation, so Bishops have latitude in many instances to recognize the differing will of God in seemingly similar situations, to administer justice through apparently contradictory actions.
Bishops are not immune from influences that affect their ability to discern the will of God in each situation, and they make mistakes, as imperfect humans will. For most bishops, this aspect of their calling (being judges in Israel) is the heaviest of all their responsibilities, and I believe we err greatly when we place ourselves in their role and presume to become, in practical terms, within our own sphere, judges of others.
One final point:
Leniency and compassion need not be administered only in extremes; they are not measured necessarily as all or nothing. The natural result of sin and transgression is a separation from the Godhead. Anything that lessens that separation – that allows it to be shortened in duration or lessened in intensity – can be seen literally as an application of leniency and/or compassion. If, for example, someone’s actions have placed him or her in a position such that never-ending separation is just, temporary excommunication can be merciful, as can a disfellowship or probation. Official discipline also can be misapplied, especially if decisions become formulaic and/or predetermined, but even the harshest examples of justice we are allowed to administer in the Church can be merciful in some situations.
In summary, our core beliefs include the concept that we, as regular, common members, have no right to judge others and inflict harm upon them, if it is in our power to forgive and not inflict harm. (Obviously, there are exceptions, as in cases of physical protection of ourselves and others.) We can and must judge actions, but, lacking perfect understanding, we cannot become judges in Israel in our own minds and hearts. Rather, our challenge is to allow those who have such a charge to exercise the authority they have been given and apply whatever level of leniency and compassion is appropriate in each situation to match the will of God. We probably won’t agree with every decision they make, but we must allow them to make those decisions we are forbidden to make.