Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, July 18, 2010

No Frontal Assaults: Spiritual Formation through the Back Door

In my readings for several weeks I've been drawn to the word "mercy." It happened again a couple of days ago, Jesus saying to those who accused his followers of breaking the law, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." Over and over again I hear the Scriptures calling for mercy, calling us as humans to mercy.

Perhaps we are invited to mercy because it is at such a premium in our world.

Or perhaps we are called to mercy because acting mercifully, especially toward those who harm or offend us, runs counter to the way most of us are programmed.

So in my prayer I wondered aloud about how to get "mercy" into me. How do I go about acquiring mercy? If Jesus says I should desire it and have it, how does that happen for me in a very practical sense? How does mercy get into me and become a part of what I do? More importantly, how does mercy get into me and become a part of who I am?

The Church doesn't do a very good job helping us with things like mercy . . . love . . . forgiveness . . . compassion . . . hope. I'm afraid that the extent of our help is to tell people that they should have these virtues. We even set up committees and ministry teams to allow people to do things that are merciful or compassionate or loving. We may have helped people have outlets for periodic bursts of these virtues, but we haven't done a very good job of helping folks get mercy, love, forgiveness, and compassion into the DNA of their souls.

Our agenda has been to preach sermons and teach Sunday School lessons about mercy, to define it, to give examples of it -- sometimes strikingly from some historical luminaries -- and to encourage persons to be merciful.

For the most part, it has come down to motivation and persuasion. Christian leaders find their job in motivating and persuading as many people as possible to take some action by an act of the will. We come at it with a head-on attack.

As with other virtues, we use a frontal assault. We act as if persons could be changed by an act of the will, by merely deciding to be merciful or loving or forgiving, so we attempt to persuade them to do so. Short-term change may happen that way. Long-term change almost never does.

So how do I get mercy into me? How do I come to have mercy at my core, directing my energies from a merciful, loving, and compassionate center?

It does not happen directly by frontal assault, but through the back door, by indirection. Like the formation of our inner life, these virtues come as the byproduct of other disciplines and spiritual practices. In other words, you open yourself to a merciful and loving life by aiming at the kind of life that will shape your interior, which then will organically produce mercy, love, and compassion.

If mercy is inside me, then mercy is what will come out of me.

That seems to be the way with all growth and maturity. To get to the destination -- in my case, a merciful life -- you must seek the road that will take you there, and then you must walk it diligently.

It's not enough to make a rational case for mercy, to set out a logical formula for mercy, or to use massive amounts of persuasion and motivation to get people to act mercifully. The question ultimately is, "How do I get this inside me so that mercy is a part of who I am?"

So I move toward mercy through the back door, or at the very most, side-ways. I endeavor toward third things, that then really open up my interior to live a merciful life. In effect, then, I'm not working on mercy, but on the state of soul from which mercy comes. I'm doing a third thing -- some spiritual discipline or practice of prayer -- that shapes my interior in a way that allows my soul to produce mercy in the world.

A frontal assault on mercy will not work. While it may reap short-term results, in the long haul a direct, full-bore approach does not last and does not transform us inwardly. You can grit your teeth and be merciful on the outer fringes of life, but if you want mercy to be who you are, to arise organically from within you, there has to be another way.

I'm asking questions about what that back door is for me, about what those third things are for me that will produce mercy in my life. Perhaps silence and solitude are on the list, and prayer, but I'm thinking that regular interaction with persons who are very different from me might be a part of my back door as well. Or might I be led to more -- not less -- involvement with those who have harmed me or offended me? I'm still open to answers.

Whatever the road for me, ultimately I want mercy to be who I am, not just what I do.

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