In a forthcoming book called The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World, author Jack Alexander unpacks a startling statistic from Barna Research: “Only 17 percent of American Christians believe that mercy is their personal responsibility, while the remaining 83 percent indicate it is the responsibility of churches, nonprofits and the government.”
That’s American Christians, not just Americans. The full research won’t be released until spring 2019. I’ll be interested to see how the question was phrased and what distinction is drawn between the Church and individual Christians, who in fact comprise the Church. But yikes.
Alexander writes: “Our distinctive as Christians is to extend love and mercy to those around us, even when they believe and look different than we do. We cannot claim to advocate for God’s justice if our relationship doesn’t include both truth and mercy.”
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God
—Micah 6:8 (NIV)
My pastors have just begun a series on the Old Testament book of Jonah. Everyone remembers the giant fish story, but there’s a lot more to this short book tucked between Obadiah and Micah. Jonah was a prophet, but he was also a jerk. He opposed the idea of God’s grace and, in fact did everything he could to prevent it from happening for his arch enemies, the people of Ninevah. Finally, after the fish incident, he goes to Ninevah and relays the word of God. The whole city listens and turns from its evil ways.
And Jonah’s response as a prophet of God is … well, he’s ticked off.
“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
— Jonah 4:1-3
Jonah displays intense pride, nationalism, hatred and indifference to the spiritual condition of others. He knows God is merciful but he doesn’t like it, preferring to see judgment — even on himself.
That’s quite a warped view of God. One Christian critique of Islam is that it focuses on God’s judgment but leaves no room for grace and mercy. If the Barna stats are to be believed (and their track record says yes), then we as a Church first need to look at our own attitudes about that. Apparently they are pretty warped, too.
Here’s where that 17 percent needs to be seen and heard. Mercy appeals to our better selves. Rather than be drawn into blame-storming and endless political arguments that are dividing the Church, we can have greater eternal impact just by seeking opportunities to show mercy and supporting others who do. Mercy is contagious, especially for people who love God.
Here also is where we as communicators of God’s stories are so needed. Mission work is all about mercy, whether it’s extended to war refugees half a world away or homeless and hurting people in our own communities. When we report those stories well, we glorify God by displaying examples of his grace and mercy. We help build a more complete view of God for a safe and comfortable Church that, left unchallenged, could look more like Jonah every day.