God’s mercy is a pure gift, both unearned and undeserved
I like rivers. I do so, perhaps, because I was born and raised in Southern Indiana in a town that hugs the shore of the Ohio River.
A river moves. Throw a stick into a river; it floats downstream. Theoretically, that stick can float the entire length of the river, and then some. For example, I throw a stick in the Ohio River at my hometown of New Albany, and theoretically that stick could flow the entire distance of the Ohio where it spills into the Mississippi River. Then that stick could flow down the Mississippi and wash into the Gulf of Mexico.
All kinds of hazards can impede that stick from flowing the distance of a river though. The stick could wash up onto the river bank. It could get stuck in the mud. It could be splintered by a passing barge. It could be snagged by a hapless angler (“Oh, man, I caught a stick-fish!”).
Our spiritual life is a lot like a river and that stick. The river is life, with all the twists, turns and oxbows it can offer. We are the stick, going through life trying to navigate those twists, turns and oxbows.
Unlike the stick, however, when we get stuck in the mud – when we sin – we have someone who not only cares about us, but also helps us: Christ the Lord. The Paschal Mystery – the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – frees us from the mud, keeps us free from the churning of the barge, and blocks being washed up onto the river bank.
We call that mercy.
Now, the Ohio River at New Albany is knocking on the door of being a mile wide. At points farther downstream, the river is a mile wide. It’s also deep. Tug boats push barges, often times three of them lashed together side by side, up and down stream. The current is stiff. That stick you throw into the river is going to immediately float away. Just as folks up in Northwest Indiana don’t mess with Lake Michigan, folks down along the Ohio River don’t mess with that river.
However, just as on Lake Michigan, on the Ohio River someone inevitably does mess with it, and the person ends up dead. Kids slide down the dam at the McAlpine locks. Boaters don’t wear flotation devices, etc.
In other words, we are responsible for our actions.
Furthermore, just as the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River, and just as the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, so too do our lives have a destination, which is God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” says Augustine.
You and I are wired to be connected to God.
But all this begs a question. This mercy God grants us so that we can be with him – our destination – what is the relationship between that mercy and our responsibility to navigate the waters?
Mercy is pure gift; an unearned and undeserved gift from God. But do we not have to cooperate with the mercy? Does not free will on our part have to come into play? We step into the confessional and we receive God’s mercy. But we also have to be contrite and do penance. On the other hand, cooperating with mercy makes mercy. That’s the point of mercy; it’s simply lavished upon us.
Take a drowning man, for example. He’s thrashing about calling for help and the life guard drags him from the clutches of death. However, suppose the man, in the throes of drowning, is no longer capable of calling for the life guard. Does the guard shrug his shoulders and ignore the poor man? “Well, he’s not calling for help, so I guess I’ll just let him drown.”
Of course not! So does God extend mercy to us even if we need it, but don’t ask for it?
Perhaps, then, you and I are like that stick the fisherman snags when casting his line into the river. We are pulled from the muck. But unlike the fishermen who snags the stick inadvertently, God intentionally catches us and reels us in. Is that not mercy?
Sometimes it’s good to be a stick fish. And God is never a hapless angler.