Jane Johnson Struck

Jane Johnson Struck
The percolations of a coffee-guzzling wife, mom, grandma, writer, and editor

Drink This In

"Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul."
Isak Dinesen
"Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical."
Jonathan Swift

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Severe Mercies

The casual way I use some words could lead to troubling implications.

Like “grace,” “mercy” is a word I use too lightly.

I do this unintentionally because “mercy” seems synonymous with “compassion” or “blessings.” In fact, Webster's Dictionary defines mercy as implied compassion that forbears punishing, even when justice demands it.

So when I say “God was merciful,” as I tell others about my husband's healing from cancer, I'm right: God spared our family from this life-threatening disease.

Or when I tell a friend “God's merciful,” as she relays the good things happening in her life, I'm right again. None of us deserves the health we enjoy, the home we live in, the family we love, the gifts and talents we've been given, even our ability to move and speak and see and serve others in the many ways we take for granted.

But then my words falter when I speak of my brother-in-law, whose life was snuffed out too early—despite prayers and pleadings and fervent faith. Or when I think of several other godly friends locked in combat with cancer, waging war with everything within them against this insidious enemy. Has God withheld his mercy from them?

I'm afraid the casual way I use “mercy” leads to some troubling implications: God is merciful—when he heals someone I love. God is merciful—when I enjoy an abundance of blessings. If I or someone I've prayed for appears to dodge a “cosmic bullet” or win some “divine lottery," God is merciful. But what if things don't go my way? What about all the good people decimated by bad things?

Several years ago I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, an autobiographical account of his courtship and marriage to Jean Davis, known as “Davy.” Before coming to Christ, Sheldon and Davy's highest good—their god, even—was their love, which they called the “Shining Barrier.” Then they met Christ. As Davy's faith deepened, Sheldon's flat-lined. He struggled with jealousy over this new Lover, Jesus, who had breached their Shining Barrier. And then Davy, only in her thirties, was diagnosed with terminal liver disease. With the help of his friend and contemporary C. S. Lewis, Sheldon ultimately concluded that his beloved wife's untimely death was a “mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love . . . [Her death] brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealousy of God.”

There's a praise song by Matt Redman we sing regularly in church. Called "Blessed Be Your Name," it goes like this:

Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's all as it should be
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

We sang this song at my friend Bill's funeral, and its bridge especially hit me hard: You give and take away/You give and take away/My heart will choose to say/Lord, blessed be Your name.

Bill walked on the road of suffering for several years before his death, passing through betrayal and unwanted divorce to a prolonged final illness. Yet even to the end Bill and his second wife, Beth, held fast to their belief in God's goodness and mercy.

Scripture told Bill—as it tells you and me—these things about God: God is good; God is merciful; God is filled with loving-kindness and compassion; God does not hold our sins against us once we've accepted his grace extended to us through Jesus.

But—and this is just as important--God's ways are not our ways. And as he told suffering Old Testament patriarch Job, he alone is God—and we are not. Case closed.

God is merciful not only when he gives, but also when he takes. Even when things don't turn out as we wish. Or when the people we love suffer and die, or our prayers go unanswered, or we lose a job or a marriage or a home. And even when this world's evil seems to win over righteousness.

In The Four Quartets, twentieth-century British poet T. S. Eliot penned this thought: being a Christian is ”A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).” According to Webster, to be “at the mercy” of something is to be wholly in the power of; with no way to protect oneself against it.

As a believer, I surrender myself to God's power. I live wholly in his mercy, with his mercy, and at his mercy. So whether I see the good in his actions or not; whether I receive what I want in this life or not; whether I win the divine lottery or lose everything but my soul, God is merciful. He is the One who gives and takes away.

Blessed be his name.

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