Forbearance to Inflict Harm: Practical Mercy

RayMormon 5 Comments

“A man asked me to treat him as he deserved to be treated – as God would treat him.  So, I set him on fire and sent him to Hell.”

“Mercy” is not defined in the Bible Dictionary, but “Mercy Seat” is – and the definition provides some interesting points of consideration. The definition says, “The golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was the place of the manifestation of God’s glory and his meeting place with his people (Ex. 25: 22; Lev. 16: 2; Num. 7: 89); and was regarded as the Throne of God (cf. Ex. 30: 6). Here the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16: 14-15).”

About “The Ark of the Covenant”, the description includes the following – “It was the oldest and most sacred of the religious symbols of the Israelites, and the Mercy Seat which formed its covering was regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Jehovah . . . The usual resting place of the Ark was in the Holy of Holies. (“Also called Most Holy Place. The most sacred room in the tabernacle and, later, in the temple as contrasted with the Holy Place.”)

So, the “Mercy Seat” was seen as the place where Israel’s God lived while he visited His people, housed within the “Most Holy” room in the temple, and sprinkled with the blood that symbolized the Atonement.

This means that “mercy” is connected intimately with the Atonement, is associated with how God manifests his glory and represents how He “meets” us.

From, the definitions of “mercy” that best fit the scriptural foundation of the Mercy Seat are:

1) leniency and compassion shown toward offenders by a person or agency charged with administering justice;

2) Forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it.

Being merciful might be categorized initially as being willing to forgive, but I think it is more fundamental than forgiving. Remember, one of the core definitions of mercy is “forbearance to inflict harm when one has the power to do so” – and I think there is a fundamental difference between forgiving and not harming. I think that we often focus so much on the first one (forgiving) that we sometimes forget about the second one (not harming) – and the thought that struck me is that forbearance to inflict harm must occur BEFORE true and total forgiveness can take place.

This is because “forgiveness” is focused on the offending person and is, as all who have been offended understand, a process. In order to “forgive”, one must first be harmed in some way – but, more fundamentally, one must recognize that one has been harmed. Someone can harm me (and do so to a great degree), but if I am not aware of it (like instances of libel or slander that do not come to my attention) I cannot “forgive”. Forgiving requires an understanding of harm, and requires an extension of mercy – by not demanding punishment that would constitute justice. In other words, if I am unable to extend mercy by forbearing to inflict harm when it is in my power to do so – and when it is “justified”, I will be unable to forgive. This, in turn, will make me a bitter person – which will compel me to continue to judge and withhold mercy – which usually, if not always, will be done unrighteously (not in accordance with God’s understanding and will) – which will, therefore, place me outside God’s own mercy for my own transgressions. Only if I offer mercy to others will I be able to “obtain mercy” from God.

Forgiving what someone does to me requires that I proactively do something for them – extend the hand of mercy and not strike back. I have never considered “turning the other cheek” as an application of mercy, but this puts it squarely as a merciful act. This puts a new and compelling twist on the scripture I have read many times in my life but never seen quite this way:

“For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” (Isaiah 5:25) I have read compassion in this verse (and others that use the same statement), but I have never framed it in terms of mercy. Each use of this phrase describes instances when the people of Israel do things to reject their Lord, and each instance mentions the anger of the Lord at this rejection and the “just” result of that rejection. However, each verse ends by saying that His “hand is stretched out still”.

The footnotes to Isaiah 9:12 (which contains the same phrase) provide the following additional clarification:

IE In spite of all, the Lord is available if they will turn to him.” This is mercy at its most basic level.

In the grand scheme of things, being merciful might be the clearest, most practical way to define and understand forgiveness. If you truly have forgiven, you will not seek or do anything to inflict harm – either physical, financial, emotional or spiritual. You will, in a very real AND figurative sense, “turn the other cheek”.

My question here, particularly, is how this concept might apply to our interactions here at Mormon Matters – or any other place where anonymity can reign? When we hear, “Blessed are the merciful,” how can we balance that with our desire to explore often controversial topics openly and honestly?

Comments 5

  1. Forgiving requires an understanding of harm, and requires an extension of mercy – by not demanding punishment that would constitute justice.

    I don’t know if I agree with this. Even in the Plan of Salvation justice is upheld. That is the purpose of the Atonement of Christ – that BOTH mercy and justice could be executed. In effect, Jesus Christ suffered the justice and punishment for our sins.

    If someone were to physically injur another the injured party could forive their attacker while still demanding that the law (justice) be upheld. They would not need to drop charges in order to forgive.

    I believe what does prevent someone from forgiveness is when their desires exceed justice and they want retribution.

  2. #3 – Good point, MD. I will quibble slightly, but only by taking God’s role out of the equation – and, perhaps, agreeing with you using different words.

    I see “forgiveness” as outside “justice” when it comes down to the individual who is harmed. God is the one who punishes (and the legal equivalent would be the judge setting the sentence), and He can dictate punishment, but “of you it is required to forgive all men”. I don’t think forgiving means we have to agitate actively for no punishment, but I do think it requires us personally to avoid punishing the one who has harmed us. In legal terms, that would be “letting the law take its course” – and not seeking *extra* punishment. That probably is the “retribution” of which you wrote.

    Again, thanks for that clarification.

  3. “A man asked me to treat him as he deserved to be treated – as God would treat him. So, God told him to marry and sent him to Hell.”

  4. I think that adding society in the equation makes it a bit more complex. If someone commits a crime that injures me or someone I love, my forgiving them is separate from what the society (the “law”) will do. Even when I forgive and resist temptation to seek vengeance, the society will inflict some punishment. How about if I seek to meet the offender and let him know I am not harboring ill feelings and am willing to argue for leniency in his judgment?

    But turning the other cheek still is hard to do…

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