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Is Mercy Always Mushy?

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 08/27/15

It shouldn't be.

When I was a boy and all us kids were watching TV, we could tell when a love scene was about to start. The couple drew closer, the violins started to play and when they began to kiss all the boys yelled, “Ewww! It’s the mushy bits!”

“The mushy bits” were the soft, sweet, sentimental parts of the story. Those were the bits for the girls and the boys felt obliged to protest. We wanted to get that over and done with and get back to the action hero stuff.

Unfortunately, in today’s world the quality of mercy in religion seems prone to mushiness. In other words, when we think of “mercy” we too often go all soft, sweet and sentimental. We think mercy is letting people get away with wrong doing. Mercy is turning a blind eye. Mercy is forgiving everyone even when they haven’t asked to be forgiven. Mercy is above all, being nice to everyone all the time no matter what they do. We imagine that this kind of mercy is the mercy of God.

It’s not. This is not God’s mercy. This is marshmallow mercy. Puffy, sweet and worth nothing.

God is certainly merciful, and the word “mercy” is one of the key themes throughout the Sacred Scriptures. In the psalms God’s mercy “is everlasting” and in the New Testament, St Paul says God is “rich in mercy.”

However, what is God’s mercy like? God’s mercy always goes hand in hand with his justice. In fact, you cannot experience God’s mercy apart from his justice. In the work of Christ on the cross we see God’s mercy and justice combined in one amazing, cosmic action. God’s justice is satisfied by the death of Christ and his mercy is extended because Christ dies for the whole human race. The cross proves that mercy and justice are two sides of the same divine action.

The cross also reveals to us that God’s mercy is never mushy. On the contrary, Christ’s heroic self sacrifice is as hard and as beautiful as diamonds. His death combines a tenderness and toughness unsurpassed.

A friend of C.S.Lewis named Sheldon Vanauken recounts his experience of God’s mercy in a book calledA Severe Mercy. In that book Vanauken recounts the story of his love affair with his wife, Davy. Their love was so strong and they were so close that Vanauken realized that they loved one another more than God. When Davy died at a young age, the heartbroken young Sheldon wrote to his friend C.S.Lewis. It was Lewis—who had himself experienced the death of his mother when he was a boy—who explained to Vanauken that sometimes God’s mercy was “a severe mercy.”

So it is always a false mercy that is mushy. True mercy welcomes the sinner, but always expects them to take ultimate responsibility for themselves and their actions. True mercy opens out into God’s best for us—not what we necessarily think is best for us. God is in the business not just of letting us off the hook, but of bringing us further up and further into the wonders of his grace, and this growth in holiness is rarely easy and never free of difficulties.

We too easily forget that the Lord whose mercy is everlasting also says, “If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me.” It is not harsh and judgmental to expect the way of Christ to be tough. Jesus said, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction, but narrow is the path that leads to life and few there be who find it.”

In our world and our church there is too much mushy mercy. We need a new vision of a mercy that is at once everlasting in its scope and realistic in its purpose. Mercy that is both of these is often a severe mercy because God, in his mercy, sees the things which need to be taken away from us so that we might love him more. He sees the things to which we are attached and gently prizes our hands away from them so that we might turn to him with our complete devotion.

Therefore, when trials come our way we should not despair of God’s mercy. The difficulties and problems of life might just be the way God’s mercy is being expressed in our lives. His mercy reaches down even into the very depths to redeem the worst suffering and bring us out of the darkness into the light and out of the gloom into the everlasting glory of his mercy.

Visit Fr Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at

CatholicismJubilee Year of MercyPracticing Mercy
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