Mercy is Not Ours to Withhold

A few years ago, my neighbor stole my lawnmower. My wife and I had gone out of town to my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving. When we returned, we found that it had snowed. I went to the backyard to our shed to get my snow shovel so that we could clear out a space to park, and I noticed that the brand new lawnmower that I had bought that very summer was gone. I immediately suspected that my next door neighbor had stolen it. A few weeks later, my wife and I returned home from grocery shopping, and the street in front of our neighbor’s house was lined with police cars. He had been arrested for meth possession and petty theft. I’m pretty sure I audibly cheered. The vindication I felt at the sight of him in handcuffs was intensely satisfying; like a personal victory.

A year later, I began an in-depth study on the book of Jonah for one of my Master’s courses. As I studied Jonah’s story, God placed my neighbor on my heart. His house had sat abandoned for a few weeks before a new tenant moved in, and I have no idea what happened to him after he climbed into the back of that squad car. But I felt a deep conviction for the disposition of my heart toward him. Like Jonah, I relished and rejoiced at the prospect of judgment being exacted on a person who did a wrongful deed.

Why are we so opposed to mercy, and so quick to dish out judgment? Why do we praise God that he has not held our own sins against us, but judge others as worthy of destruction for theirs? Why do we rejoice that God has forgiven our unforgivable debt, but turn around and charge our neighbor’s debts against him? The fact that, as Christians, we have witnessed firsthand the mercy of God despite our own depravity means that, as Christians, we have accepted the fact that mercy belongs to God. As recipients of grace, grace is not ours to withhold. Some of my reflections on Jonah 4:1-5 come to mind.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate…” (Luke 15:11). Jesus told this famous parable as he sat in fellowship with tax collectors and prostitutes while the Pharisees looked on in derision. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” they said (15:1). As Jesus relates the Parable of the Two Sons it becomes increasingly clear to the Pharisees that the older son who is angry at the father’s mercy upon the prodigal (15:25-32) represents their own hard-heartedness toward those they deemed unworthy of grace. Through the parable Jesus exposes the self-righteousness and legalism that resides in the hearts of the Pharisees and invites them to remember that they have witnessed firsthand the incalculable blessings of the Father, and so should not be surprised or bitter when his mercy extends to those who have strayed from him. The Pharisees’ relationship with God should have cultivated compassion toward the lost and caused them to see the tax collectors and prostitutes gathered around Jesus differently: as lost people in desperate need of salvation, who have found the faithful love and forgiveness of God. The Pharisees would have been well familiar with the story of Jonah. Yet the parallels between their attitude toward sinners and Jonah’s are almost comical. Despite the polemic warnings against exclusivism woven throughout the book of Jonah
and its many reminders of God’s mercy upon all people, the Pharisees fell into the same faulty line of thinking as Jonah.

God’s mercy in Christ stands in stark contrast to Jonah’s limited view of it. We see in Christ the ultimate fulfillment of Jonah 2:9: “Salvation belongs to the LORD.” He is the more faithful prophet, the “greater Jonah”, who humbly obeyed God’s call to enter into a wicked and disobedient world and offer salvation not just to Israel, but to all of humanity. Christ fulfilled the Law, under which everyone is condemned and deserving of destruction, and extends to them his righteousness and his eternal inheritance as a sovereign act of mercy. Jesus saves all who come to acknowledge him and worship him as Lord and Savior from an even greater wrath and an even greater destruction than that which Jonah preached to Nineveh.

Jonah 4:1-5 invites us to reflect on the untold grace that God has lavished over our own lives and calls us to an even deeper understanding of the scope of God’s forgiveness and mercy which extends even to those we deem undeserving of it. When we hungrily anticipate God’s justice being poured out on those who do wrong, these verses remind us that we ourselves are no better or less deserving than they. We are the recipients of unfathomable forgiveness and mercy which we have done nothing to deserve; it is a sovereign act of grace. Why, then, do we rejoice at the prospect of wicked people being subject to God’s judgment? Weren’t we once far from God? Weren’t we once dead in sin? May we not fall into the same trap as Jonah, rejoicing when God bestows on us the forgiveness and mercy we believe we are entitled to, but attempting to withhold God’s forgiveness and mercy from those who we believe do not deserve it. As believers, we have a gospel message of eternal hope and security in Jesus Christ. It is a message that offers salvation and deliverance, not from physical calamity, but from spiritual destruction. As beneficiaries of the gospel of salvation, it is not ours to withhold (Matt. 5:15). Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection was a sovereign act of mercy, offered to all sinners from a gracious and compassionate God, who is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, so that no sinner is too far from grace. The truth is that, one day, we will stand in the Kingdom alongside many of whom we have deemed unworthy of God’s indescribable inheritance (Matt. 12:41), yet they too will have received forgiveness and mercy in Christ. So what good is it for us to withhold the hope we have received? What good is it for us to be angry?


My Facebook timeline has been flooded with people posting screenshots of Jacob Blake’s criminal record, as if past his crimes actually justify him being shot in the back 4 times in front of his children. Again, I am speaking to my fellow Christians: As a depraved sinner who is an undeserving recipient of God’s untold grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, what moral high ground do you have to use a fellow human’s past wrongdoing as justification for his destruction? As recipients of mercy, may we be agents and advocates of mercy.

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