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Severe Mercies

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

I do it unintentionally, because in my mind "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 so merciful" as I tell others about my husband's healing from cancer, I'm right: God spared our family from this life-threatening disease.

And when I say, "God's so merciful" as I mention to a friend the good things going on in my life, I'm right again. I don't deserve the health I enjoy, the home we live in, the family I love, the gifts and talents I've been granted, even my ability to move, and speak, and see, and serve others in the many ways I take for granted. But my words falter when I speak of my brother-in-law, whose life was snuffed out too early by lung cancer—despite prayers and pleadings and fervent faith. Or when I think of several others—godly friends—locked in combat with cancer, waging war with everything they have against a terrible, insidious enemy. Has God withheld his mercy from them?

I'm afraid the casual way I use "mercy" can lead 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? And 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—is their oneness, their love, which they call the "Shining Barrier." Then they meet Christ. As Davy's faith deepens, Sheldon's faith flat-lines. He struggles with jealousy over this new Lover, Jesus, who has breached their Shining Barrier. And then Davy, only in her thirties, is suddenly diagnosed with terminal liver disease. Ultimately Sheldon concludes, with the help of his friend and contemporary C. S. Lewis, 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

I remember singing this song at a friend's funeral. The 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."

My friend Bill walked on a 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 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; he is merciful; he is filled with loving-kindness and compassion. He does not hold our sins against us if we're in Jesus Christ. 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 away. 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.

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.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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