I was walking down the hall at the community college where I taught business writing to adults returning to college when I heard the words, “I will be merciful to those who show mercy.”
I stopped dead in my tracks, because it was evening and the halls were deserted.
Sometimes God likes to smack me upside the head.
“Well . . . thanks for that insight,” I said quietly to the hall as I continued on my way, perplexed.
Moments later one of my students came jogging around the corner, looking frazzled. During the day he drove a big truck—a giant dump truck in the nearby copper mine. When he had introduced himself to the class at the beginning of the semester, he said he’d spent the last ten years literally driving around in circles, and was ready for something new.
He’d been a good student, but now he stopped before me, breathless. “Mrs. Mercer! I know the paper is due tonight, but I didn’t get it done. Last night my little boy got really sick, so I spent the night with him in the ER because my wife’s pregnant and also sick, and I know I should have taken my work with me to finish . . .”
Somewhere during his panicked explanation, I quit listening, because all I could think of was “mercy.”
Take his school work to the ER and write while he held his sick toddler?
While he explained in graphic detail what ailed his son, I remembered the advice I’d been given when I was a TA in grad school: “Students will give you any kind of excuse to get out of turning in work on time. Don’t fall for it. Now’s the time to teach them that there’s only one definition of ‘on time,’ and anything less deserves to lose points. The real world doesn’t accept ‘late work.’ A real job would fire them for ‘late work.’ Teach them about the real world.”
What stupid advice, I thought.
Before Big Truck Driver could go on, I knew exactly what I had to say. “How’s your son?”
He stopped and stared at me. “Uhh, he was dehydrated and they had to do an IV which he didn’t enjoy, but he’s much better today.”
“And your wife?”
“So how long do you need to finish your paper?”
“But it’s due tonight!” he reminded me, unnecessarily.
(Ok, maybe it would have cracked my driveway . . .)
“I’ll be grading those papers for days. Get it to me whenever you can.”
He grinned and turned it in to me by the next night. He even drove it over to my house on his way out of the copper mine. (This was before we were in the habit of emailing documents, and I’ll confess—I was disappointed he didn’t show up in his giant CAT.)
Shortly after that incident, others showed mercy to me, and over the dozen years or so since that evening at the community college, I’ve observed this principle I’ve learned to call “Mercy Out, Mercy In.”
Some call it karma, but I’ve discovered the mathematics of it are not a one-for-one relationship. For example, if I were to assign a numeral quality to the mercy I gave to my student, I’d give it a 2.
But when Big Truck Driver handed me his paper that night on my doorstep, the relief and gratitude he exuded was a factor of at least 50.
Something had miraculously multiplied, likes loaves and fishes.
I know, because I’ve felt that same unexplainable math in my life. Someone shows me a touch of mercy, but what I experienced at the receiving end was a much larger measure than what was given. I’ve been granted all sorts of things I like didn’t deserve: time, understanding, forgiveness, forgetfulness, and second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances.
Just recently I was on the end of “mercy in” again. No, I’m not about to give the details of some horrendous experience, because those “share all” blogs make me intensely uncomfortable. But something smaller will illustrate my point.
After spending over a month trying to understand the programs and equipment necessary for recording an audiobook, then recording my first chapter again, and again, and again, I submitted it to my mentoring group.
I confess I shed a few tears, which I rarely do. I had invested four weeks, over thirty hours, sold some personal items to afford the necessary equipment, and suffered through a learning curve that went so steep it toppled on top of me a few times.
I wanted to quit.
But I couldn’t quit.
I was so frustrated, but I so desperately wanted to get it right. The situation seemed hopeless and I felt utterly stupid. How could others succeed while I just couldn’t seem to figure it out?
It’s hard to come back from feeling completely stupid.
Then there was some “mercy in.” One of the reviewers sent me the short message: “But the reading was very good.”
Numerically, that probably cost her a value of 1, and maybe took her all of 15 seconds.
But I felt it a value of 100.
I dried my tears, licked my wounds, spent the next couple of hours experimenting, reconfiguring, rerecording (my fifth time on that same chapter), then submitted again . . .
I fixed a few more items . . .
Submitted yet again . . .
All because a mentor handed me a morsel of encouragement, a tiny tender mercy, and it was enough to get me where I needed to be.
I wondered later if that mercy meant so much to me because of what had happened the day before.
I currently teach a freshman composition class, and two of my students turned in their assignments that were . . . well, completely wrong. One unintentionally plagiarized while the other fell victim to what most college freshmen do: if you’re not sure how to complete the essay, write a book report. (The assignment was an annotated bibliography.)
I had a choice: I could fail them both, saving me from having to grade two more papers, or I could offer some “mercy out.”
The answer was easy. I wrote to each of them, “You’ve misunderstood the assignment, and as it is, you’d earn a failing grade. But I want you to learn this; you’ll need it for the rest of your college career. So how about you take another crack at it, and turn it back in to me in 48 hours? Here’s what you need to do . . .”
That response cost me all of five minutes, maybe a factor of 3, including the extra time I’ll need later to grade their late papers. Marginal. Minimal.
But my students were most grateful (after they were chagrined and panicked). The mercy I extended to them cost me so little, but they received so much more.
Interestingly, the day I finally got approval for my audiobook recording, someone else wrote on my thread where I had requested feedback. This man, who I’ll call Bill, wrote, “I admire your persistence. You have much more than I do. I just can’t seem to get this right either.”
I saw a study once that suggested people born before 1975 will always struggle with technology. Bill was born much earlier than I was, according to his profile picture, and I knew his frustration.
Once again I had a few ways to respond to this: I could have ignored him, or I could have said, “You’re right, Bill. It’s too hard. No one blames you for quitting,” because hey—he’s actually competition for those who may choose between listening to his book versus mine. Why encourage the competition?
But after I had just experienced so much “mercy in,” there was only one response.
I started a new thread, addressed to Bill.
“Don’t give up! Now that I’m so close, I can taste it, and it’s marvelous. You’re so close!”
That cost me maybe a 1.
The moderator of the site jumped in with, “She’s right, Bill. You are very close to success, and I have a friend that can help you.”
When Bill later wrote, “Thanks, all. I think I will give it another shot,” you could feel his hope growing, his frustration lifting, and his joy returning: all results of receiving mercy.
Ready to hit the “smite” button. While this is one of my all time favorite “Far Side” cartoons, I don’t ascribe to the gospel of Gary Larson.
And it cost me so little.
We live in a vindictive society, where three-strikes-you’re-out sounds quite generous compared to the ever increasing no-tolerance policies that leak into everything. That’s why it’s even more important for individuals to give—and receive—mercy. We can’t survive without it.
In other terms, we could consider this repentance and forgiveness, terms which I’ve discovered hold negative connotations in some people’s minds. “Repentance” often creates images of an angry Deity throwing punishments at sinners.
But years ago I heard a much better, and more accurate of repentance: a loving Father with His arm around His child and saying, “Yes, you failed. But you know, failure doesn’t have to be permanent. How about we let you take another crack at this? I’ll even show you what to do . . .”
I think Greg Olsen has a better handle on “mercy out, mercy in.”
I’ll be the first to confess that some days, giving mercy is much easier than others. And those “others” days? They can be brutal–no doubt. There seems to be no mercy left in the world, for anyone.
But over the years I’ve discovered that it doesn’t cost me that much–practically nothing at all–to show mercy: to be kinder, to encourage, to let slide a mistake, to forget a slight, to ignore an insult, to think the best of a person or situation, rather than imagining the worst.
And really, it’s easier. Vindictiveness breeds anger and revenge, and frankly those efforts are exhausting!
It’s simpler to smile, offer mercy, and go on. Then, when you least expect–but need it the most–mercy will come back at you, with more force than you could ever hope for.
Mercy out, mercy in.
Mahrree felt they had been granted so many miracles in such a short time that it seemed as if the tender mercies of the Creator were focused entirely on her family. It didn’t seem fair to be the recipients of so much.
They had suffered some too, but in the balancing of the Creator the miracles always outweighed the tragedies. ~The Mansions of Idumea