For God’s Sake, What About Mercy?

To love an addict raises a lot of questions for a Christian.

To love poses not only emotional and spiritual challenges but also requires, as my friend Allan Tysick says, ‘wrassling with the faith.’

Open the box, and many theological/ethical pieces tumble onto the board - forgiveness, hope, providence, faith, grace, justice, mercy.

“It’s his own fault.” I have heard this, directly or implied, many times both of my son and others who wrestle with demons.

And there is truth to the observation that current consequences follow from certain decisions. Even though a tremendous amount of research is being done into addictions and the role of genetics, brain chemistry, social context, early trauma and other things, there still does remain some element of choice in the life of an addict. After having observed my son’s addictions for many decades now, I lean towards thinking that, once certain chemicals are introduced into the brain’s system, there is less choice than once assumed; nevertheless, some inherent ability to chose exists.

Often though the statement, “It’s his own fault,” excuses a lesser level of compassion or willingness to assist on the part of the speaker or others.

The statement, “It’s his own fault,” often excuses a lesser level of compassion or willingness to assist on the part of the speaker

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Certainly he bears responsibility.

But, as a Christian, this only begins the discussion.

Does bearing responsibility for his action move him to the outside, either of our family or the society? Do only innocent victims of unexpected illness or circumstance deserve care?

If a policy of care and compassion based upon merit were pursued to the logical conclusion, the workload for search and rescue operations, medical personnel and the insurance industry would be much less.

In the language of theology and Christian ethics, the conversation is about mercy and its relation to justice.

Both justice and mercy are relationship words; they are terms that seek to uphold and clarify certain dimensions of relationships.

In my grandsons’ baseball games I notice the presence of what is called the Mercy Rule. No team can score more than seven runs on the other in one inning - except for the last. Mercy thus assumes a boundary of pain or discomfort; a merciful team or person does not push beyond the limit of pain.

But, in the Biblical sense, the prime focus of mercy is upon the maintenance of relationships.

Grace, to keep it short, refers to the tendency of God to connect, to reach out and form relationships. Justice comes into play when we do not fulfil the responsibilities of our relationships, when each is not given their proper due, whether as a result of position, merit or opportunity or other criteria. Mercy arises when we (or God) reach out, acknowledging the transgression or abuse to relationships, and refuse to allow the rupture to lead to exclusion or abandonment.

As a father I love my son because he is my son.

As a Christian I marvel at all those people, during the years, that have reached out to Caleb, unbidden and with no promise of personal gain, only a deep desire to help. I count those as acts of grace.

Like him, I acknowledge all the times he has acted unjustly, transgressing the basic mandate of respect, and so rightly incurring a sense of shame, guilt and the need for accountability.

But this is not the end of the Christian story.

At the front of the church, in which I was raised, stood a worn plywood bench called the Mercy Seat. Most often it was visited, at the end of worship, by alcoholics or those who felt they could no longer bear the burdens of their life, the poverty, abuse, number of children, unemployment or guilt.

Tears from broken or heavy hearts fell upon the old bench. Some rose from the Mercy Seat changed. The thirst for the bottle gone, at least for awhile. Others got back to their feet feeling a little lighter, if only by naming their burdens and struggle. Many times the Seat functioned as a combination of a Catholic confessional, a therapist’s couch and a friend’s kitchen table. At the very least, they rose knowing they were heard and that God had not abandoned them.

Grace establishes the relationship. Mercy will not allow the relationship to be broken or the transgressor to be cast out.

The cost of mercy is high. Ask anyone who loves an addict. Ask God.

I pray that my son stays alive long enough for his heart and spirit to accept the great gift.

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