The Difference Between Mercy and Meekness and Kindness
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, Essay 11.]
When I first started pondering mercy, I was struck by the difference between mercy, meekness, and kindness.
If I had not focused on meekness so intently, I probably would have defined mercy in terms of being kind. However, as I continued to think about it, it hit me that mercy is more than being kind and gentle, in a very important and fundamental way.
Meekness includes gentleness and benevolence, which includes kindly generosity. Being meek means reacting with kindness by being gentle in our response to others. For example, meekness is the central concept in Proverbs 15:1 – where it says,
A soft answer turneth away wrath.
In other words, meekness comes into play whenever something needs to be done or said by mitigating the harshness that naturally would accompany a rebuke and helping us say something as gently as possible.
Mercy, on the other hand, encompasses soft answers (since they do not inflict harm to the same degree as hard answers), but it goes beyond meekness in that it often requires us to give no answer at all, to inflict no harm, even to the more minor degree that a meek response would cause. It requires us to “turn the other cheek” – an act of full mercy (not striking back although justified), NOT merely meekness, as I had assumed previously. In this way, someone can be meek (gentle and kind) without being merciful (fully non-judgmental, understanding and forgiving), but it is impossible to be merciful without being meek.
Let me use one example from the life of Jesus to illustrate this point, and to show that meekness and mercy are required of us fully (“of you it is required to forgive all men” – D&C 64:10), but they are not required always of a righteous judge. When Jesus cleared the temple, He was neither meek nor merciful. He acted forcefully and dispensed justice energetically. He was able to do so righteously for two reasons:
1) As the designated God of this creation – the divine representative of the Father – He had authority over the temple which had been built as His house. He was the Master of the House in the fullest sense and, thus, had the right to cleanse it forcefully.
2) As the Eternal Judge, he had the authority to administer justice, literally to choose whatever action was correct for that situation. He could see the big picture and judge righteous judgment.
There are times, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, that we may act with neither meekness nor mercy – when we may “reprove betimes (in good season or time) with sharpness (keenness of an edge or point)” – since these instances explicitly are directed by a member of the Godhead. All other times, when we are not acting through direct communication from deity, we must strive to be either merely meek or truly merciful, by inflicting as little harm as possible through gentleness and kindness or no harm at all through mercy. That is a fine line that must be drawn, I believe, in each and every instance, which is one reason why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is so critical to our progression and growth.
It also is why I try hard to make sure I really am being moved upon by the Holy Ghost whenever I feel like delivering a stinging rebuke of any kind. I fail regularly at that, but it is important that I try.