The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God

I’ve just tweeted that the first person to pick a topic would receive a blog post on said topic from yours truly. I did this a couple of weeks ago and it was a fun exercise. I hope to make it a semi-regular thing. In any event, my brother-from-another-mother Esteban was the first to tweet and he chose “The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God.”

In the above clip of the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, President Bartlett curses God, quoting a line from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. While the quotation comes early in his rant it becomes clear by the end of the tirade that the President truly cannot conceive the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.

Just look at the manner in which he raises his accomplishments before the Lord as faux sacrifices; incensed at the thought that they’re not “good” or not “enough” to “buy [him] out of the doghouse.” He goes on the question God’s righteousness, justice, and wisdom based on his own lack of merit, never once realizing that it’s precisely God’s righteousness, justice, and wisdom that make his mercy so appallingly strange.

A crude definition of justice is getting exactly what one deserves. President Bartlett, fictional as he is, deserves the death and punishment that sin brings. That’s justice. Sin is offense against a righteous God. Conventional wisdom should say give the sinner what they deserve; God’s wisdom says otherwise. St. Paul tells us that

“the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is precisely because God is righteous and just that all humans have an innate desire for justice. The problem is that this desire is marred by sin. It’s the reason we root for the jilted lover to get even or the surviving family member to exact revenge when we watch movies. But vengeance is the Lord’s; not ours. God’s mercy is so appalling to us because it’s so strange. The idea that someone isn’t getting what they deserve runs counter to that effaced sense of justice that we all harbor deep within our beings.

Something doesn’t seem quite fair about it, and we can all testify (especially those of us with children) that from very early on we learn to say “that’s not fair” quite often. God’s mercy is also strange in the fact that it’s wholly unnecessary. God shows mercy out of his sheer desire and pleasure in doing so. He’s absolutely free to do otherwise and yet he chooses mercy when justice would suffice.

In speaking of election Paul cites a scene from the Exodus in which God announces that he will be gracious to whom he will be gracious and show mercy on whom he will show mercy; and Paul does this to defend God’s justice! He wants the Romans to know that what seems unfair to them (God’s freedom in election) is anything but! It’s not by works (contra President Bartlett) but by him who calls.

But what of those who have been foolish enough to believe the message of the cross? For those whom God has elected and shown mercy? Does it really make any more sense for God to have sent his Son into the world to live sinlessly, be rejected by his own people, die in the place of sinners, and be raised to life in order to defeat death? Is this message any less appalling or strange? Not really; in some ways even more so.

Once we’ve come to know God’s love and we’ve been convicted of our sin, realizing (even if only in part) the depths of our wickedness, it makes one wonder why he’d do it at all. Why save a people who didn’t deserve it? Why satisfy justice via a righteous sufferer? When I watch the flogging scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ I’m not appalled by the violence; I’m appalled that it was suffered on my behalf. It’s strange to think that I deserve that and much worse and yet the Son of God who didn’t deserve any of it took it for me anyway.

At the end of the day God’s mercy doesn’t make sense, and to steal a line from my black Pentecostal roots, favor ain’t fair. But great is the mystery of God, and greatly to be praised is his name! Gloria in excelcis Deo! 

B”H

6 thoughts on “The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God

  1. In that episode, there are flashbacks to Jed’s younger years, when he was a student at a boarding school where his Dad was the principal. Jed complains to his father that the school’s service is not non-denominational because it teaches faith alone, whereas Catholics believe faith should be joined with works. I wonder if that’s relevant to his prayer in the Cathedral.

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