Mercy, like its divine companions love, justice, and righteousness, is frequently subject to creaturely appropriation. Easily mistaken for mere kindness (or worse, niceness), acts of mercy tend to be measured by the feelings they produce. Feelings are not irrelevant, but the object of mercy is something much more objective: need.
The story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10 illustrates vividly the relationship between mercy and feelings. It becomes abundantly clear in the Gospels that Jesus is mercy incarnate – whenever he sees need, he is moved to compassion, and he acts to help. But our sensibilities about how that should look are disturbed when we observe that Jesus sees the young man’s need, is moved to compassion (“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, v. 21), and then acts in such a way that the man departs sorrowfully. With no apparent regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a task that he finds to be impossible. Or perhaps you could say it this way: with every regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a singular opportunity to experience godly grief.
As much as the story cautions us against identifying mercy with niceness, it evokes an additional caution. You and I are not in the business of feelings, good or bad. The point is not that Jesus was wise to discern which kind of feelings would best suit the fellow. The point is that Jesus was wise to discern his need and acted to help. Jesus certainly possesses the key of knowledge. He knows what feelings to evoke and when, but that is not given to us. Instead, we ought to pray that we have eyes that see need and hearts that are moved to compassion and wills that choose to act accordingly.
It’s here that we can observe another, perhaps more subtle case of mistaken identity. Just as mercy is easily mistaken for niceness, judgment is easily mistaken for unkindness. It’s the same problem of feelings – something that evokes negative feelings must be some measure of judgment and, therefore, cannot be mercy. But the relationship between mercy and judgment is not so inversely linear as you would assume.
Consider this remarkable pattern in Amos, in which acts of judgments are dealt to Israel time and again in an effort to stave off the graver, impending, final judgment. “I gave you cleanness of teeth … yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God withholds the rain, sends blight and mildew, inflicts pestilence, and overthrows the people, yet they did not return to him. “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (v. 12)! All along, every momentary affliction, every momentary judgment is, in fact, also an act of mercy in view of Israel’s most desperate need. It’s a desperate need of which they seem to be completely unaware: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! . . . Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18, 20)? They hit the accelerator, not blindly, but aiming towards this fatal collision with God’s justice. Whether they fail to take his judgment seriously or they consider themselves to be righteous, the mercy of God intervenes. Paradoxically and scandalously his intervention is in the form of a temporal judgment.
Again, caution is warranted at this point. Although we do well to understand that mercy may come in the form of judgment, it’s not given to us to execute God’s judgment. It is given to us to announce his judgment, but always and only ever in the service of mercy. This commitment to mercy is exemplified by Amos. Even as he announces God’s final judgment and as God himself declares his intention to execute, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people: “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD” (Amos 7:2-3). Following that saintly example, every Christian has enough merciful work to do in prayer for the rest of his life.