“How kind the Lord is! How good He is. So merciful, this God of ours.” Psalm 116 v 5
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, I cannot find in my own, and He keeps His fire burning, to melt this heart of stone, keeps me aching with a yearning, keeps me glad to have been caught, in the reckless, raging fury, that they call the Love of God’ by Rich Mullins
I loved this Rich Mullins song as a child, although only as an adult did I realise I’d messed the words up: having it in my head as the ‘wildness’ of God’s mercy, not ‘wideness.’ On reflection though, I think this is the perfect way to describe the mercy of God. But what is ‘wild’ about mercy?? Surely mercy, in it’s essence, is a gentle, soft characteristic, something that nice people possess but don’t make too much of a fuss about?
As I’ve ridden the rollercoaster that is life, I’ve come to appreciate to some extent the true strength of the mercy depicted in this song. I think there are few stories that illustrate this better than that of the Bishop of Digne in ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo (promise there’s no singing, so you can keep reading!!) His tale, set in 1800’s France, tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who has recently completed a prison sentence of 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Angry and bitter at his treatment in the world, he finds on his release he still cannot find work, shelter, or a means to survive as a result of his prison legacy. In this state he finds himself cast on the kindness of the town Bishop, who offers him shelter and food for the night. The assumption is that this kindness will change Valjean; instead he gets up during the night and steals the Bishop’s silverware and runs off into the dark, only to be caught by the local police and brought back to face the Bishop and the consequences of his actions, most likely a life prison sentence for reoffending. This does seem a just and reasonable outcome, given his disregard for the trust and kindness of the bishop. On arrival at the Bishop’s house the police mockingly tell the story Valjean has told them: that the Bishop had given him the silverware as a present. Their mocking turns to astonishment and disbelief when the Bishop tells them not only that this is correct, but that Valjean has forgotten the most expensive item in the house, the silver candlesticks - and gives these to him also. Faced with this, the police are forced into a position where they have nothing left to charge him with- and melt away, leaving Valjean alone with the man who has ‘bought his soul.....and given him back to God
Valjean at first cannot comprehend and does not know how to act in the face of such undeserved favour and kindness- and suffers for a time the confusion that accompanies one trying to grasp the concept and possibility that there is Grace. Valjean‘s behaviour, in stark contrast to the Bishop’s willingness to show mercy at any cost, even when it may make him look foolish to the people, and his willingness to be made a fool of by Valjean again, causes Valjean to break and turn to the light...and to the mercy of God.
The ‘wild’ mercy, that will take a risk in looking foolish, for the sake of the impact that that mercy and Love can have on a soul in turning it from darkness to light. We need to remember this: that the strength of our Christianity lies not in rules, in judgement, or our ability to adhere to our current version of what ‘good’ looks like: rather, it lies in the strength of the Love and mercy of our God, who looks on our sin, all of it, any of it, and lets us go free- knowing that this Love has the power to break us, and bring us back to the light, with a greater and more binding force than all others put together.