I had never thought of myself as scared to love, but in that moment I was. The rather large man who sat across the desk from me was confessing two important realities of his life: he had an anger problem and a prison record. He was also asking for counsel.
What made me nervous was the reality that to confront his anger I was going to have to say things he wouldn't like, and that might possibly tempt him to lash out in anger. He might be tempted to respond in ways that were familiar to him, ways that had led him to prison in the first place. I, in turn, might be tempted to respond in ways such as falling unconscious on the floor and bleeding a lot. But there he sat, a broken man—if still intimidating—asking for help. I couldn't say no.
Mercy Is Risky
Being a church of mercy can be extremely scary, and churches need to know this truth. Everyone loves to talk about mercy. Many, however, are naïve about the reality of showing mercy. It's easy to talk about mercy, but mercy can be scary.
You risk being abused and disappointed. One church I served had an annual "Single Parent's Fair," an event designed to offer assistance to single parents and their children. Every year people would become angry when the school supplies ran out, or when there was a line for dental exams. Though they were being offered free services, some still felt entitled to throw fits if they didn't get what they wanted.
Then there's Andy, whom we found was trying to use our church as a place to hide from the police. Or there was the young woman in our congregation who was assaulted while trying care for local prostitutes. Demonstrations of mercy can have serious consequences. Many demonstrate true gratefulness and receptiveness to mercy. But others do not care, do not understand. They are only interested in taking. Are our churches really willing to serve these people? If not, we don't yet understand mercy.
Mercy Is Lonely
Revolution Church was not regarded as a safe place to many in the rural community of southern Ohio. Our congregation of recovering drug addicts, alcoholics, and former convicts received lots of criticism. "I think it's nice what you're doing down there," one lady told me, "I just think you have too many addicts."
Many accused us of endorsing sin because we welcomed homosexuals. Others accused us of being a front for drug trade in our community. Still others ignored us because they assumed we had simply bought into some form of the social gospel. Most never took the time to visit or get to know any of our members. As a result few wanted to partner with us. Mercy is scary because it can often be lonely.
Mercy Is Inconvenient
A church that shows mercy can't rely merely on programs and scheduled events. I love the team of volunteers I work with at Cornerstone Baptist Church. The Detroit metro area is full of needs, and showing mercy to our community depends on people being ready and willing to serve whenever and wherever a need arises. Mercy means taking time away from the comforts of your home to do court-appointed counseling for a teen who works every day until 5 p.m. It means calling that guy who hasn't been at recovery in two weeks to follow up with him, and then going to his house when he won't return your calls. It means losing working hours because the homeless guy you've developed a relationship with nearly dies and needs you. Counseling victims of rape, caring for children in the midst of a divorce, and learning to forgive an adulterer don't revolve around your timetable. Mercy is rarely convenient. Being a church of mercy means a lot more than offering some programs and organizing a food pantry. The inconvenience alone can be scary.
We know, of course, that mercy is scary if we take time to consider the ultimate display of mercy. The ultimate display of mercy cost the Son of God his very life. It temporarily separated him from the love of the Father. The gospel, which compels us to show mercy, models the reality of mercy's cost. We need to keep this truth before us if we're going to be realistic about our church's efforts to show mercy.
How do you continue to serve others when the woman you've helped to get clean and get back on her feet returns to a life of prostitution? How do you keep serving others when the young man you've mentored not only doesn't want to stay clean but also doesn't want to believe in God?
The only way to persevere depends on knowing the love God has displayed to you. Paul says, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). The testimony of the Bible tells us God did not give mercy to people who were "worth it," who sought it out. Rather, he gave mercy to those who hated him. When we expect some disappointment and, better yet, when the gospel fuels our demonstrations of mercy, then we can persist in the face of difficulty.
There can be real fear in mercy. But fear can subside when you know the God of mercy.
Dave Dunham is associate pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He blogs at Christ in the City.