I’ve heard God’s mercy described as tender by some and severe by others. I’ve often wrestled over how both could be true of the same God. However, as I continually understand more of the attributes of God, I see how both are fitting of the compassionate and just nature of the Trinity.
Author and friend of C.S. Lewis, Sheldon Vanauken once described God’s mercy as, “ [a] mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.” Vanauken wrote this while grieving the death of his wife, Davy.
Yet even Vanauken would describe this severe mercy as holding a certain tenderness. Through the process of grieving over his wife’s death, Vanauken, a new convert at the time, was wrestling over the issue of pain: how could a loving God allow a good person to die so young?
As he grieved, Vanauken faced waves of hope and doubt and uncertainty and absolute truth. So there was never a moment where he could pinpoint “this is exactly why Davy had to die”. However, through the process of looking up and leaning in to the presence and character of God, Vanauken discovered a deeper truth.
He saw in his late wife, the character of Christ. During her life, Davy, who had become a Christian not too long before Sheldon, shared his love for what theologian R.C. Sproul would call, “the good, the true and the beautiful”. Davy, channeled that love for beauty and for the art in life into a love for God - the ultimate source of beauty and creativity. Sheldon was drawn to the beautiful attributes of God, but not initially the Creator Himself.
Following Davy’s death, Sheldon began to realize that his pursuit of beauty was misdirected. He surveyed Davy’s life and saw that the joy amidst pain and uncertainty was directed toward what she believed was absolute: the eternal, immutable Father God.
What Sheldon had once seen as a restricted, binding religion, became the end source of beauty: a loving and just Creator who was the answer to His questions.
What Sheldon described as severe mercy, Zechariah described in Luke 1 as “the tender mercy of our God.” Zechariah described this tender mercy as an attribute of God which gives light in dark places and brings peace and a knowledge of salvation (Luke 1:77-79). This declaration was given shortly after the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist.
While Sheldon’s God of “severe mercy” appeared in a time of death, Zechariah’s God of “tender mercy” appeared in a time of new life. So God can posses both a tender and severe mercy, because both are birthed out of love. The tender mercy appears because God is a God of restoration and reconciliation. The severe mercy appears because God is a God of justice and truth, but of justice and truth rooted in love.
God was no less present in Sheldon’s grief than he was in Zechariah’s joy, because God brings both grief and joy. I think that’s such a beautiful truth. Often, I don’t associate grief with being a “godly characteristic.” It seems harsh and negative. But I have come to believe that if we as Christians do not know the depths of grief, how can we truly recognize the heights of joy and the glory of God?
In the Christian life, there are both times to rejoice and lament. So passages such as Lamentations 5:14-16, speaking of joy turned to despair and Isaiah 61:2-4, speaking of joy replacing despair are both true and timely.
And I think I’ve come to understand a little more of what that balance can look like over this past year and even just over this Christmas season. Reading about crisis like the current situation in Aleppo or tensions within U.S. borders over race, ethnicity, religion, culture and an increasing list of societal fracture points are vital to know and understand. Yet, many of those issues I know I’m looking at from out of context, or at least a different context than many. The level of hurt felt by those and other minorities should in many cases be a reason to grieve. If we are created to desire to be fully known and loved, even if one knows and experiences the love of Christ, being misunderstood by the majority is isolating, it’s polarizing and it cries to be heard, if only to be heard.
We sing songs like “O Holy Night” in worship services that speak of the severe and tender mercy, the grief and joy of Christ - because he brought both to a weary world, a world which longed for that source of beauty which would bring rejoicing. That “thrill of hope” is a hope given to the lonely and lost, the shepherds in the fields.
Christ brought joy with His coming, experienced grief in His ministry, found joy in Creation and grief in his death and joy again at His resurrection and grief with the present brokenness of the world. Now joy and grief still have a place but are forever misplaced when found outside of Christ.
And maybe one of the first steps in realigning that balance is understanding whose and whom we are and our place in the midst of culture. Brennan Manning describes it well in his book, Abba’s Child. (If you haven’t read it, please, please do.).
Manning describes the grief of God as a grief rooted in sorrow of seeing the reticence of His children to approach Him out of shame and self-hatred. Because, Manning challenges, how can we truly love others if we do not know and understand who and what the source of love is - the Father heart of God?
Understanding and experiencing this love is a process, a lifelong one at that. It is the wrestling between rejection of self and belonging as a “beloved child of God.”
In Christ, Manning states, we have peace even when there is no peace. In this state, we can as Psalm 46:10 says, be still and know that God is God - sovereign over the nations and sovereign over the universe. That peace amidst tension seems timely as this year wraps to a close.
Tender mercy, then, may be knitted with the severity of life, but maybe it is the mercy to which we are called. Manning describes tenderness as the security and knowledge of being sincerely known and loved by another, a safe person. This tenderness has the power to banish fear and create a warm, caring, affectionate love for the other out of which springs compassion.
This tenderness, Manning asserts, is found in its fullest form in the triune God. If we lean into the tender mercy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we experience a tenderness that leads us not only into compassion, but into a forgiven and forgiving nature. It is this nature which has the power to transform societies and cultures. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, might call this state, convicted civility. C.S. Lewis might call it, living out of a nature “surprised by joy.”
How we live then, in light of this tender and severe mercy (severe only in its love), can be either a posture of contemplation and adoration toward the present risenness of Christ or, as Manning would call it, “the agnosticism of inattention” - a lack of self control found in any noise that dulls the senses away from Christ.
Vanauken realized that the noise he had filled his life with was a misdirected pursuit of beauty and artistry. In seeking to bring Davy joy to the fullest extent, he saw the heights and depths of approval and disapproval to the point that cynicism crept in, rather than the pursuit of joy he sought at the start.
In Davy’s death, Vanauken was able to see that her identity was not rooted in Sheldon’s approval or disapproval of her, but rather in her identity as a beloved child of God. This realization which frustrated him when Davy first came to Christ, became a wellspring of joy when he too first encountered the present risenness of Christ.
Upon experiencing Christ through the words of the Gospels, Vanauken stated, “The personality of Jesus emerged from the Gospels with astonishing consistency. Whenever they were written, they were written in the shadow of a personality so tremendous that Christians who may never have seen him knew him utterly: that strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness.”
In the moment when I realize how selfish and self-centered my love is, I realize how beautiful and inexpressible God’s love is. That is the moment that brings meaning to 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.”
One of my favorite pictures of God’s tender mercy and love in its severity is in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace Scrubb, a reasonably unlikable boy through a series of events is transformed into a dragon. Dragon Eustace feels lonely and truly disliked because everyone is afraid of him and no one will come close enough to love him or see his (hidden) humanity, even as previously he did not see theirs.
Aslan, the Great Lion and Christ-figure throughout the series, speaks with Eustace and everything changes. Eustace recalls:
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.” “I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund. “Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”
In this new year, may we with courage approach Christ - dragon scales and all - and allow ourselves to be embraced in perfect love and a severe, tender mercy. May we not stop there. May we out of the immensity of heavenly love, turn and love those whom we might deem the most unlovable with compassion and forgiveness, because we are them. In 2017, may we live in light of undeserved love and unhinged, merciful joy.