Monday, July 23, 2012

Thirsting for Mercy

In the course of my teaching duties, I came across a most atypical young man.  This youth, incarcerated in a county youth camp like almost all of the students I have in my care, asked me a simple yet profound question.

"What word comes to mind when I say mercy?" he inquired of me. 

"Grace," I replied. 

"How is that?" he asked.

I pulled out a church business card from my pocket and gave it to him.  My church's name, by the way, is Grace Chapel - you'll find the link for it on the top right of the page here under "Links for the Journey" - so I explained to him the natural connection between these two words. 

"So what you're saying is that mercy and grace are equal - is that right?" he thoughtfully summed up.

"Essentially, yes," I replied.  "They are pretty much interchangeable words to a large degree." 

"Well, I always thought that grace and mercy were different.  Grace is being nice and stuff, and mercy is when you are really needing a way out of your spot," he countered.

"Interesting that you say that," I volleyed back to him.  "I can understand that in your life situation you have come to understand those two words that way.  But in the sense of how the Bible uses those words, they are more similar in meaning than different," I advised, praying a silent prayer that the Lord would use this situation to reveal himself and his perfect will to this young man, while asking for protection against anyone who might get upset and file a complaint with the ACLU, who has a presence in this one youth camp. . . and throughout the county camp system these days due to a recent ruling from a judge.

I looked around the room for some Webster's dictionaries.  There were none, surprisingly. . . the normal situation is to find several in each classroom.  Interesting. 

My student still verbally contending that grace and mercy are with different meaning, he reaches out to his probation officer, who is stationed in the classroom by the door - standard protocol for operating such a county camp classroom for the safety and discipline of the classroom.

"Valletine, come here!" he shouted.

The probation officer, Officer Valletine, saunters towards the student's desk with his handheld computer tablet with Internet access. 

"What you say about these two words - are they the same or different?" he readily asks.

"Oh, different," the PO replies. 

"See!  Valletine agrees with me!  You've got it wrong!" he glowered at me.

"Well, maybe on a common word usage basis, perhaps.  If you would look at a good concordance or get into the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, you'll find that in that sense I'm telling you the straight scoop."

"The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek?" he exclaimed.

"Certainly.  It sure wasn't written in English. . . only Archie Bunker believed that!" I replied. 

"What's a concordance do?" my student inquired.

"It tells you what the words mean with precision so you know what the text actually says in words you can understand and relate to," I answered. 

"Oh."  He slumped back in the chair as if in resignation, realizing there was a lot more in the world that he had never realized existed or had seen yet. 

He looks at his probation officer and asks, "You get a concordance thing up on that computer?"

"Yup, sure thing.  We can go look at one when you get out of class and see what we can find, OK?" he reassuringly replied.  

A moment of calm in my student heart was thus achieved.  Relief that he could find out what he wanted to find out.  It was important, because he was writing lyrics in his dorm time hours, and he wanted to do the best job he could in expressing himself and his yearnings for freedom and release from camp and its walled, barbed wire confinement.  But not mere physical freedom. . . the kind of spiritual freedom which is found only in Jesus Christ. "So if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed," Jesus said in John 8:36. 

*  *  *

Well, my student's question has been richoteting in my mind the last few days.  Let's answer it by looking at some applicable verses. (All in ESV unless noted otherwise)

From Hebrews 4:16:

 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Strong's Concordance lists our word "mercy" from the above passage as eleos, meaning

mercy: kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them
  1. of men towards men: to exercise the virtue of mercy, show one's self merciful
  2. of God towards men: in general providence; the mercy and clemency of God in providing and offering to men salvation by Christ
  3. the mercy of Christ, whereby at his return to judgment he will bless true Christians with eternal life
Contrast with "grace" which Strong's identifies as charis, from where we get our English word "charity":

that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech

  1. good will, loving-kindness, favour
    1. of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues
  2. what is due to grace
  3. the spiritual condition of one governed by the power of divine grace
  4. the token or proof of grace, benefit
    1. a gift of grace
    2. benefit, bounty
  5. thanks, (for benefits, services, favours), recompense, reward
From Titus 3:5-7:

5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Grace and mercy again appear in our text above.  Here, the sense is the same.  The exact same Greek words appear as before.  

Perhaps it's best to restate the above verses from Titus this way: "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own  clemency of God in providing and offering to men Salvation by Christ, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ or Savior, so that being justified by his loving-kindness and merciful kindness which turns them to Christ we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life."

Clemency.  Salvation.  Lovingkindness.  Isn't that what all of humankind yearns for?  And that word "clemency" is a well used term in the prison systems across the United States. 

Finally, from James 2:13:

 Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Another way to put it is "The clemency of God in providing and offering to men Salvation by Christ triumphs over judgment."

Clemency is, of course, another way of expressing the notion of redemption, an important Biblical theme in and of itself.  Hey. . . even a major motion picture deals with the topic in a gritty but emotionally moving way: The Shawshank Redemption. 

Was I correct in my initial response to my student in what grace meant versus mercy?  Strong's does mention that part of the definition of grace is merciful kindness. . . so in that sense I got it right.  In the larger sense of the words' meanings, I needed to be clearer in my definitions.  That's what you get when you work in a tax supported public school system environment, though.  But I am thinking about the possibility of purchasing a tablet and taking it to my next work assignment for a situation like the one I had here.  The Lord will provide, as he always does. . . in his time.  Until then. . .


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