The Difference Between Mercy and Kindness:How Does It Apply Here?

RayBloggernacle, meekness, mercy 12 Comments

I was struck last year, as I worked to understand mercy better, by the difference between mercy and kindness.

If I had not focused on meekness earlier in the year, when I defined meekness and where I discussed being gentler with the ones we love, I probably would have defined mercy in terms of being kind. However, as I thought about it, it hit me that “mercy” is more than being kind and gentle – in a very important and fundamental way that has direct relevance to blogging.

Meekness includes gentleness and benevolence – which includes kindly generosity. Being meek means reacting with kindness – by being gentle in our response to others. For example, meekness is the central concept in Proverbs 15:1 – where it says, A soft answer turneth away wrath.” In other words, meekness comes into play whenever something needs to be done or said – by mitigating the harshness that naturally would accompany a “rebuke” and helping us “say it as gently as possible”.

Mercy, on the other hand, encompasses “soft answers” (since they do not “inflict harm” to the same degree as “hard answers”), but it goes beyond meekness in that it often requires us to give no answer at all – to inflict no harm, even to the more minor degree that a meek response would cause. It requires us to “turn the other cheek” – an act of full mercy (not striking back although “justified”) NOT merely meekness, as I have assumed previously. In this way, someone can be meek (gentle and kind) without being merciful (fully non-judgmental and understanding and forgiving), but it is impossible to be merciful without being meek.

Let me use one example from the life of Jesus to illustrate this point – and to show that meekness and mercy are not required always of a righteous judge. When Jesus cleared the temple, He was neither meek nor merciful. He acted forcefully and dispensed justice energetically. He was able to do so “righteously” for two reasons:

1) As the designated God of this creation (the divine representative of the Father), He had authority over the temple which had been built as His house. He was the “Master of the House” in the fullest sense.  He had the right to enforce rules for what happened inside that house.  (For an interesting discussion of this in our own world, see You Make the Call: Holiday Party Edition.)

2) As the Eternal Judge, he had the authority to administer justice – literally to choose whatever action was “correct” for that situation. He could see the big picture and “judge righteous judgment“.

There are times, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, that we may act legitimately with neither meekness nor mercy – when we may “reprove betimes (occasionally) with sharpness (precision)” – since these instances explicitly are directed by a member of the Godhead. All other times, when we are not acting through direct communication from deity, we are told to be either merely meek or truly merciful – by inflicting as little harm as possible through gentleness and kindness or no harm at all through mercy. That is a fine line that must be drawn, I believe, in each and every instance – which is one reason why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is so critical to our progression and growth.

What are the implications of this concept for Mormon Matters?  How does this applty to the way we intereact with each other in this sort of on-line community?  How does the attainment of this objective vary in this type of setting from one in which we interact face-to-face?  Are there downsides to meekness and mercy here and, if so, what are they?  How can we balance this directive with the desire (or occasional need) to defend and correct – or act as an administrator and moderator?

Comments 12

  1. “betimes” does not mean “occasionally” — it means “early”.

    betimes |biˈtīmz|
    adverb poetic/literary
    before the usual or expected time; early : next morning I was up betimes.
    ORIGIN Middle English : from obsolete betime (see by , time ).

    Otherwise, I think the essence of mercy is showing an increase of love after any necessary reproof or injury.

  2. Post

    E.R., you are correct that “betimes” can mean “early”. It also can mean “occasionally”. (See – what I use out of laziness when I’m on-line.) I usually use both “immediately” and “occasionally” when I go into more detail on that full passage – so I appreciate the clarification.

    “Reprove” also can have contradictory meanings. (1. to criticize or correct, esp. gently;
    2. to disapprove of strongly; censure) The difference appears to be nothing more than the attitude and tone with which the reproof is given.

    In this context, that would add to my questions in the post, since it addresses how to reprove “immediately” or “early” and still do so in a merciful or meek way within an on-line community like this – and when reproof should be voided altogether.

  3. For what it is worth, we get this definition of betimes from the 1828 Noah Webster dictionary:


    BETI’MES, adv. [be and time, that is, by the time.]

    1. Seasonably; in good season or time; before it is late.

    To measure life learn thou betimes.

    2. Soon; in a short time.

    He tires betimes, that spurs too fast betimes.

    So at the time of the revelation I don’t think the current “at times” is what was intended. Rather it seems that “before it is too late” is the idea.

  4. My way of connecting to this is as a parent. I wish there were dozens of books on how to be a single parent to a teenager you just adopted. Maybe I’ll have to write one.

    On his side, he’s learned to act certain ways his whole life, and now I go and ask him to change, and it’s hard. I know it is. He’s also to the age where he makes all his decisions himself, with only guidance and advice from me. And there are a few decisions he has made that are seriously life-threatening. I want to be gentle, meek, kind, and merciful, and I feel I haven’t managed it. But I also want him to hear the seriousness and danger in my tone. I want him to know that some things are completely beyond the pale. I also have to let him know what things he isn’t allowed to do in this home while he lives here and while I support him.

    I’m so new at parenting. Isn’t it true that there are times when the parent can’t be the friend? How do I negotiate this? I’m afraid of losing him altogether, either to his mistakes, or because of my harshness.

  5. Post

    #4 – Tatiana, I have been where you are. I count it as success that he is still alive – and appears to be trying to break the cycle he inherited. He is not living with us anymore, but he still keeps in touch – and now he says, “I love you,” where he never did while he still lived with us.

    Even with that experience, I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I only feel impressed to share this one comment he made:

    “Those who understand me (his biological family and long-time friends) don’t love me; those who love me (my family and those at Church) don’t understand me.”

    That broke my heart, because it was true at the most fundamental level, but I have held him while he cried and chastised him when he blatantly broke the rules and defended him when accused unfairly at school by a racist administrator ad infinitum – and all I can say is that I wouldn’t go back (even with all the pain he caused) and refuse to care for him. He’s my son now – and that’s all that matters.

    My only advice: Try to set aside all pre-conceptions and assumptions and spend time getting to know him. Keep your expectations to a required minimum, by sticking to the things you simply can’t compromise but cutting him slack where you can. Focus first and foremost on making sure he knows you love him – and if you don’t yet, pray that you can.

    You probably already are doing that, but it’s all I have. God bless you in your effort.

  6. Post
  7. Justice is to give people what the deserve– both good and ill.

    Mercy is NOT to give people what they deserve, but rather, to give them what they cannot possibly deserve.

    It is a gospel paradox that God is both perfectly just, and perfectly merciful. That is, he always gives us exactly what we deserve, and mercifully, exactly what we don’t.

  8. Ray, thanks. It really helps to hear from someone else who has done this. I will pray to understand him better, and to really hear him when he talks to me.

  9. I recently attended a baptism in which many of the attendees privately questioned the worthiness of the priesthood holder performing the ordinances. In March of 2008, the man performing the ordinances moved in with a woman, and her children. The woman found out she was pregnant in July 2008, and they married in August 2008. The woman’s daughter was to be baptized in November 2008, but the current bishop at the time informed the couple this man would not be able to baptize the girl until July 2009. The bishop was released as he had served his time called, and a new bishop was called. The new bishop met with the couple, and the couple was not completely honest about their past relationship. The new bishop gave the approval for the man to baptize the girl in January 2009. WHAT DO YOU DO??? Do you tell the bishop, or let it go??

  10. Do you tell the bishop or let it go?

    My opinion: You do both.

    I would want to know if I were the Bishop. Therefore, you tell the Bishop and let him make the call – one way or another. You are merciful in not attempting to make the decision on your own, and you are meek in the way you approach the new Bishop, but you don’t ignore it if you are sure of the circumstances.

    In the end, you leave the decision to him. Sharing the info is your responsibility; judging the decision is not.

  11. “How does this apply to the way we interact with each other in this sort of on-line community?”
    Thank you Ray! As usual you got it right. This is an on-line community and by communicating with each other this way we help each other. When I can’t get inspiration at church (it happens more often than we want to admit it) I can always draw on my friends from Mormon matters.
    Thank you again!

  12. “there downsides to meekness and mercy here and, if so, what are they?”

    Good questions. Tough questions.

    I speak only for myself on this. I believe that if you have two groups, one that acts merciful in the sense that you describe, and one that does not, that the non-mericful one may have a distinct advantage in the court of public opinion.

    I am even aware of studies showing this. The loud vocal, but often hated, group does indeed exert real influence on the rest of society and makes real changes. The merciful and quiet one does not.

    So this does lead me to believe that there might be cases where being merciful (using your definition) can actually be harmful to morality. Imagine if our society was merciful to racists, for example. It would have taken a lot longer to see the changes we’ve seen.

    The problem is… to be honest, I don’t see alot of scriptural backing for this view that I’m expressing. Well, other then various scriptures were people (Christ or Prophets) obviously take a non-merciful approach. But as you point out, we can say that they are authorized by God first. So this is a condundrum for me that I have no answer for at this time and I haven’t found a scriptural answer at this time. I’m uncomfortable with both of the options I currently see and wish I had a better idea.

    Also, I wrote a post a while back about how being meriful can also be harmful to an individual. But of course that was with a different definition of merciful and in a legal context.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *