The Difference Between Mercy and Meekness and Kindness

[ 13 ] Comments

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 1Essay 2Essay 3Essay 4Essay 5Essay 6Essay 7Essay 8Essay 9Essay 10, Essay 11.]

in your handsWhen 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.

About Ray DeGraw

I am the husband of my high school sweetheart and father of six children. I basically have no life outside of family, work and church - except blogging, which I have been doing actively, to put it mildly, for the past 5 years. I have lived in almost every section of the United States and currently reside in Carson City, NV. I have written at Things of My Soul, Mormon Matters, Times & Seasons and StayLDS.com - and commented more than occasionally at various sites in the Bloggernacle.

13 Responses to The Difference Between Mercy and Meekness and Kindness

  1. Bonnie says:

    While I agree that mercy builds upon meekness, extending us to act consciously for someone else’s welfare instead of just not acting solely for our own (and I think that’s a lovely distinction, by the way), I disagree that firmness is unmerciful. I actually, in fact, think that’s a distortion of the truth perpetrated by the world. Tough love – cleansing the temples over which we have stewardship – these are ultimately merciful acts that initially cause discomfort. Few of us do it so cleanly as Jesus did, but even in that he models for us the act of establishing boundaries. I have long loved the description of him braiding a whip. He considered what he was doing and how, and so should we in the equally infrequent times when we are called to cleanse our temple. I think we can safely say that he was both perfectly meek and perfectly merciful while he was also perfectly just and perfectly responsible.

    The larger question of mercy is how to provide it for the many sides of many-sided issues. His act of cleansing the temple was incredibly merciful to those who wished to worship in spirit and truth in the Lord’s house, and merciful to those who were sinning in that he communicated that they were out of line, thereby making any future sins fully their own. I think we do meekness and mercy a disservice when we make it impossible for people to stand up in spirit and truth in their stewardships.

  2. Ray says:

    I agree with you, Bonnie, and said explicitly that there are times for that sort of temple clearing – but I believe I have to be certain I am receiving prompting from the Holy Ghost whenever I clear a temple in a way that involves harm of any kind to others.

    Justifying my own emotional reaction is extremely easy. I take D&C 121 very seriously in that regard, so, whenever I am not absolutely certain if it’s me or God doing the talking, I try to err on the side of long-suffering.

  3. Bonnie says:

    I guess I was responding to your statement that Jesus was neither meek nor merciful in cleansing the temple.

  4. Paul says:

    I still cling to the definition of sharpness that Elder Theodore Burton shared with us in a zone conference when I was on my mission. He counseled that the sharpness of D&C 121 is the sharpness of a clear photograph, not the sharpness of an acid. That is, our reproval should be clear by not painful.

    In that regard, I remember more than once when, as a bishop, I received timely reproval my my stake president; he provided clear direction when I had erred, but did so with such love that I would have happily received his “rebuke” again and again.

    Bonnie, I agree that sometimes the most loving thing we can do for another is to administer “tough love.” In that instance, we often are simply allowing someone the dignity of having the consequences of his or her actions rather than shielding him or her. It is only through experiencing those consequences that we learn and grow; it is the reason for our existence, and for us to shield someone else from proper consequences is not love, nor is it kind.

  5. Ray DeGraw says:

    I like the use of photo sharpness, Paul. My favorite is of surgical sharpness – of precision. Rebuke of any kind should be surgical, and there is an important difference between operating with a saw or butter knife and operating with a surgical knife.

    Thus, a rebuke or consequence should be prcisely focused on action, not sweepingly applied to a person in totality. In other words, if I am screaming at someone, there is little chance I am being precise; but I can administer consequences precisely without any anger or unnecessary harm.

    Bonnie, we might simply disagee in the case of Jesus clearing the temple. He might have been acting mercifully toward those who were being oppressed, but I can’t see his actions as meek by any definition – and I can’t see them as merciful toward those he drove out. Perhaps the whip was more merciful than a sword, but I could say the same about my mouth compared to my fist. I think there is a place for direct attack that I don’t have to classify as merciful or meek, but, for me, that place needs to be at the extreme – like a God clearing a temple or in cases of defending someone against direct attack.

    I don’t see Jesus in the temple as a case of “tough love”; I see it as righteous indignation. To me, those are two very different things. I believe tough love needs to be administered mercifully and in a spirit of love, while righteous indignation can be purely punishment-based – and sometimes that can be neither merciful nor meek.

  6. It sounds to me like there might be some good in a study of instances when Jesus gave rebukes to try to understand what the problem was, how He approached it, and how each situation compared.

  7. Bonnie says:

    But Ray, Jesus inflicted no pain when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He established a boundary and enforced it. The fact that he used a whip was to clarify a consequence if they did not move. It never says he beat anyone with it. They did not belong there, because the coinage without faces that could be used in the temple could just as easily have been exchanged outside. They had intruded with their business in a holy place and he essentially told them to leave. There is nothing unmerciful in that act. I have always wondered why people seem to think Jesus was violent in doing this.

    • Ray says:

      The verse doesn’t say how he used the whip; it only says that he fashioned one and drove out the money changers. It’s left up to us to interpret how the whip was used – as a threat only or in an actual whipping.

      I don’t know, since we have absolutely no way to know, but I believe he used it as more than just a threat. I can’t think of any reason whatsoever, in that situation, why that would have been wrong or inappropriate in any way – and I also don’t like any reason I’ve ever heard as to why it would be wrong or inappropriate for him to have used it fully as a whip and not just as a threat.

      As I said, it looks like we simply disagree about this, and I am totally fine with that – since, again, there simply isn’t any way to know for sure.

      • Ray says:

        With regard to not accepting silence about something as proof of it, it would be easy to read the Gospels and assume that none of the disciples were married, especially the twelve – if Peter’s mother-in-law had not gotten sick and needed to be healed. It would be easy to read that verse and believe that Peter was the only one of the twelve that was married.

        I know you know that, Bonnie, but I just want to point out that just because Jesus isn’t described explicitly as striking someone with the whip he made, it doesn’t mean he didn’t do so. We can’t know, but I tend to think everyone would not have fled if he only had been brandishing it and making threats. I think seeing it actually strike someone would have been the catalyst to fleeing.

        • Bonnie says:

          I agree – we will probably disagree! That’s okay. He turned their tables over, we know, and he drove them from the temple, we know. I am often bothered by the use of “righteous indignation” as a justification for anger of any type or sort. I don’t think there ever is one (though certainly there is forgiveness.) The clarification of one being angry “without a cause” (Matt 5:22) is removed from JST, and I think that’s instructive. But as you say, we can agree to disagree.

  8. templegoer says:

    I think there are far fewer situations in which it is appropriate to deliver a ‘stinging rebuke’ than we think, and even if it may be appropriate in terms of justice it rarely brings about the work of mercy. For those who are ‘Judges in Israel’ this is of course different, but still very difficult ground to tread.

    And when I am angry and indignant-say when I come back from working our vegetable patch dirty and sore to find a kitchen full of my adult kids dirty dishes and there’s a meal to be cooked-is not the time for me to be very discerning. Those moments are hard as they carry so much baggage with them. My point is that we all get to be human, and there may be some point in expressing that flawed humanity as I’m guessing that they’ll feel pretty bad at the mess in the kitchen too once it’s pointed out. Sometimes they’ll need our anger, sometimes it will be harmful to express it. Sometimes it may be harmful not to express it.That lingering experience of being in the wrong but not being altogether clear about quite what it is that has riled someone is pretty manipulative and harmful too.

    And we get to forgive each other. I’m not the Saviour and I don’t stand in His calling, and sometimes it concerns me when we expect either ourselves or others to be as He is. I am so grateful I have a Saviour who got this right, I’m grateful for His example and I’m grateful for forgiveness that comes through Him when I fail.

    • Ray says:

      Amen, templegoer. Amen.

    • SilverRain says:

      I have been moved occasionally by the Spirit to deliver a stinging rebuke, and it has always been with a sense of trepidation and humility, never with fury. There may be “righteous anger,” yes, but it is so different from personal anger that the only reason “anger” is the word we use is because we don’t have a much better one.

      You know the time is right because you are moved with love and compassion, not fear, hatred or disgust.

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