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Are you growing in mercy?

At a conference I recently attended, the featured speaker related a piece of advice a friend had once given him: “If you are not growing in mercy in your life, then you are probably following the wrong path.”

There is a good deal of Christian sense in this statement, especially considering that our common goal as followers of Christ is to grow into his image.

But what does it mean to grow into the image of Christ?

Our conference speaker emphasized that it meant to grow into the love and mercy that were shown in Christ. Often, however, I think we have other things in mind than mercy and love. Perhaps we might believe that the more we distance ourselves from the corruptions of the “world” and the more morally “pure” we become according to some set of standards, then the more like Christ we become.

Unfortunately, this understanding of growing into Christ’s image more often reflects human constructions and standards and not the love and mercy that is at the heart of the gospel.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul addressed this issue specifically. The congregation at Ephesus was made up of Jews and gentiles who had been divided by standards and regulations some argued had divine sanction. These regulations created a “dividing wall of hostility” that kept the two communities apart.

Paul wrote that Christ himself became “our peace” by destroying this “barrier.” He did this “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death to their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16, New International Version).

For Paul, the peace and grace of God are found in the cross of Christ rather than in rules, standards and commands by which we earn a form of self-made holiness.

“Orthodox” Protestant Christian doctrine, of course, is that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.

In fact, a major scriptural basis for this teaching comes from Ephesians (2:8-9). I think, though, that we really do like our good works and very much act as though God, and certainly other people, should take notice of them. However, as our conference speaker noted, if we are not growing in mercy in our lives, then we are on the wrong path.

A prayer in the “Book of Common Prayer” says that God declares God’s “almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.”

I believe that is something we know deep within our soul. But it is a spiritual truth we cover over. We seemingly prefer the God of works and might and glory to the God of mercy and pity and forgiveness and lowliness.

However, when we look at the example of Jesus, it is the God of mercy and forgiveness and lowliness we see on display. The God of power and glory and our own goodness by our rule keeping is a God of our own imagination. It is time for us to set this aside and grow in mercy as God has been merciful to us.

When we inspect ourselves and are well pleased because we have kept all the rules, we become like the Pharisee in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). We may have followed our own understanding of someone’s construction of an institutional set of standards. We may be upright in our eyes and in the eyes of our compatriots.

In the parable, however, the Pharisee prays only to himself because he lacks humility before God and others. In effect, he prays with clenched fists instead of open hands.

Let us open our hands before God, who is the source of mercy, so that we may reflect his mercy to others. Then we will grow in mercy and be on the right path of growth into the image of the God of grace.