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When Holiness and Mercy Collide

April 7, 2014

There are some controversies that just won’t go away.  I’m beginning to think that the World Vision saga is one of them.  I saw reports on several news sites that the total number of WV children who have lost their support now exceeds 10,000.  Pundits and bloggers continue to chime in.  Everyone I read, without exception, was clear how tragic it is that starving children became innocent victims of this clash.  Of course, they also saw that the poor kids were victims of the other guys, not their own moral clarity on the issue.  So whose fault is it?

Frankly, I think it is the Bible’s fault.

What we see here is a struggle between holiness and mercy.  Both seem to be very important to God.  I can find verses, all the verses I want actually, that make it clear that holiness is important to God.  I can find verses that urge me to separate from or shun the ungodly.  Those who cite these verses make it clear that separation from WV is in response to the call to not support or condone through their gifts the acceptance of unholiness.

There are plenty of verses in that same Bible that urge mercy; plenty of examples where Jesus and others reached out to sinners.  There are even verses that say that mercy and compassion is better than sacrifice.  No doubt about it, as a Christian I need to show mercy just as much as I need to be holy, the Bible is clear about that.

How dare the Bible give us two commands that seem so impossible to follow at the same time!

Well, perhaps because we were never intended to have quick easy guidelines?  Perhaps we are asking too much of the Bible, not for God’s sake, but for our own desires to have things simple and easy?  Perhaps being a loving and caring Christian in a complex and fallen world is not something that will ever be simple and easy and God never intended it to be so?

OK, maybe is not the Bible’s fault.

Maybe it is our desire to turn the Bible into an easy answer book.  If all we have to do is pick a topic, gather up all the verses that we think speak to that topic, and draw conclusions, it makes faith simple doesn’t it?  That way you get to ignore all those mercy (or holiness) verses because they really don’t have anything to do with your study do they?

Somehow, while there will never be an end to the tension between mercy and holiness, I suspect they aren’t enemies either.  Someone once said that “you will commit the sin you least fear.”  If holiness matters to you, then you are prone to being unmerciful; if mercy matters to you then you are risk for being unholy in extending it.

I recognize the tension between holiness (separation from sin) and mercy (reaching out to the sinner) is an everyday struggle we must face.  I suspect if we don’t feel it we’ve already fallen too strongly to one side or the other.  We will always have to choose, in complex situations day after day, whether we’d rather err on the side of mercy or holiness.

There is one shining reality at the point of clash between holiness and mercy and it is grace.  It is in the grace we receive from God as we struggle to be like him in this crazy world, never sure exactly what to do.  It is in the grace we can show to those who choose differently than we do.  It is in the grace we show to those 10,000 children by pledging, in the name of a holy and merciful God, that we will not abandon them.


From → Christianity

  1. pdolwick permalink

    I don’t really get the idea of erring between mercy and holiness when it comes to confronting others. As a sinner myself, how can I choose anything but mercy?

  2. I agree,Pat. Mercy is an act, or series of acts, and I feel we can do that. Holiness, as I see it, is a condition and I suspect that trying to be holy, while not an altogether bad thing, just shifts the type of unholiness I exhibit. For example, if you are proud about being holy, you aren’t.

    I’m going to pick up this topic again in a few days. The more I think about it the more I see the holiness/mercy issue as central to a growing split in evangelicalism.

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