True and False Mercy
This is the fifth and final installment in our “Father of Mercy” series. To this point, we’ve outlined what mercy is and several ways we fathers can apply it to our wives and our children. However, I may have inadvertently missed one of the most fundamental lessons of mercy: the difference between true mercy and false mercy; God’s mercy and the world’s mercy; the mercy of the heavenly Father and the mercy of the father of lies. In Mel Gibson’s epic motion picture Braveheart, William Wallace has rallied the Scots to drive out the English, who have to this point occupied and pillaged their lands, crushed them with heavy taxes, and raped and ravaged their women. At one point in the film a meager Scottish army is preparing to march into battle against the powerful, well-armed, and well-trained English. But before engaging in battle, the English propose terms of “mercy,” stating that if the Scots decline to battle and surrender, the English lords will grant them their own land and minimize taxation. Wallace refuses to comply with the terms because he recognizes that by making such a deal, and appealing to England’s so-called mercy, the Scots would remain ever enslaved to their power. What we learn from Gibson’s portrayal of Wallace is that there exists a perennial battle between true mercy and the mercy the world gives. Evil is constantly proposing terms of mercy in order to “buy us off,” “get us to back down,” to intimidate us from fighting for the true cause. In other words, the world, the flesh, and the devil continually offer us mercy in the form of compromise.
These compromises come in a number of ways: disordered attachments to financial stability, an overemphasis on popularity and likability, addiction to comfort and illicit pleasures. These compromises can enslave us, and often keep us from achieving our true identity. Whereas God offers us mercy, which always leads to true freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free—the freedom to become manifestations of God’s glory. This is the epic battle—the battle between false mercy and true mercy; between continual enslavement to compromises and authentic freedom to be who God has created us to be.
Breaking Free from False Mercy
We fathers are faced daily with an incredible battle—the battle for our identity. Who we are determines who we will become. Who I become determines to some degree who my family becomes. Who my family becomes helps to shape who the Church will be and her effect on this broken, dark world. The battle for each of us is for freedom—a freedom that can only be obtained by being who God has truly created us to be. The purpose of our existence is to become manifestations of God’s glory. As St. Paul says, “For this purpose He [has] called you by our preaching to gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14). “[We are] children, then heirs too—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ; if indeed we are sharers in Christ’s sufferings, in order that we may also be sharers in His glory” (Rom. 8:17). Romans 9:23 tells us that God has “prepared us in advance for glory.”
God desires to share with us the glory of his Son. If you partake in the glory of the Son, as St. Catherine of Siena said, you will “become who you are and set the world ablaze.” The mercy that the world offers has a single purpose: to keep us from discovering our God-given identity, to have us compromise with enticing temptations, coping mechanisms, distractions, and temporal allurements that distract us from our true calling. The evil one instills fear within our hearts: “Don’t say that—people may misunderstand you and reject you”; “Don’t act like that—people may think that you are a radical religious freak and marginalize you”; “Don’t be who you really are but rather be like everyone else—here, I’ll give you this or that to help appease and please you, just don’t become who you really are.” Why do we fall for this? Why does the muscle guy wear the tight shirts? Why does the gal get the breast job? Why do people only buy items that have a special logo on them? We do such things to derive value from others, to feel included, as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We do such things to obtain a false identity from a false world.
The movie The Truman Show depicts this battle powerfully. Truman has been born in a fictional world comprised of a fictional set and fictional characters. His mom is an actress, his wife is an actress—everyone in his world is an actor—his whole life is a show that airs 24/7/365. The whole world knows that Truman’s world is false—except for Truman himself, who is led to believe that it is real. As a child Truman was fascinated with the sea, but the producers of the show knew well that if Truman ever embarked at sea, he might find the end of this false world. The producer then has his dad take Truman out to sea on a fishing trip, and stages Truman’s father drowning for the purpose of instilling fear of the sea into Truman. The fear was instilled with the hope of keeping Truman from the truth—from him discovering his real identity. Over the years, however, Truman begins to sense that his world is too perfect, too predictable, too easy—too boring. He longs for adventure—to break free.
Every time Truman begins to discover that his life is a farce, his wife offers him something to numb him, his friend stops by with beer—you get the idea. These are the numbing agents that were aimed at keeping him from pursuing the dream of becoming who he really was. Truman was on the right track—he wanted to discover the truth of who he really was, but every time he did, the powers that be distracted him from his mission. You and I are the true men, who are called to throw off the deceptive, contrived world that Satan offers by overcoming his intimidations and distractions and discovering our true identity and purpose in life. Where your fear is—on the other side is your freedom.
The Agony of Identity
God’s mercy is different than the evil one’s mercy. God’s mercy is the very power given by the Holy Spirit to lead us away from the distractions, false allurements, and disordered attachments, which are so often rooted in fear. God wants to free us from fear and allow us to become the person he has destined us to be. Again, where your fear is—on the other side is your freedom. The evil one’s mercy is something like this: “Do this and people will like you, you will belong, you will fit in and have a secure, comfortable, safe life—just be nice and never rock the boat.” God’s mercy is something like this: “I will help you become who you are that you may set this world ablaze—but to do this you must discover your identity and your identity is being my son, and to be my son you must be purified of your attachment to the father of lies. This may not be comfortable or safe, and you may have to appear unlikable and risk a little—but in the end you will know with certainty that you are my son.”
To become great fathers we must become great sons, and the essence of a son is trust in the Father. The battle to discover, believe, and live the reality that we are sons of God the Father will cost us much. Christ sets the example of sonship. On the night of his betrayal, he entered the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane actually means “oil press.” Oil is often portrayed in the Sacred Scripture as being associated with joy, gladness, kingship. The process of extracting oil from olives was called treading, in which a person crushed the olives with a rock and the oil was gathered in the well of another rock. In order to share the oil of gladness, joy, and our very kingship with our family, the boy who is attached to the mercy of the evil one—compromises and lies—must be crushed that the true oil of the king may anoint his family. The garden is the place of battle and it is in this place where we will be tested as Christ was tested. Scripture tells us that Christ, on the night of his betrayal, while in the garden of Gethsemane, entered into a tremendous agony. The word “agony” in the Greek means conflict or challenge, and the root word “ago” means to be led or driven. In other words, Christ was driven or led by the Holy Spirit into a conflict. What was the conflict, the challenge? Make no mistake, Christ’s agony was deeply associated with his identity.
Admitting Who We Are
At the heart of Jesus’ agony is the battle for his identity. God said to him, “You are my beloved Son.” The evil one, on the other hand, time and time again said, “If you are the Son of God . . . do this.” Meaning, “I don’t believe that you are the Son of God, and neither should you.” During Christ’s Passion he is assaulted three times regarding his identity: “Which one of you is Jesus the Nazarean?” Meaning, are you able to be the man who dies in place for his bride? Caiaphas adjures Jesus, “Are you the Son of God?” Meaning, “Are you divine? Are you God’s Son?” Pilate asks, “Are you a king?” Christ each time admits and confesses his identity without shrinking from who he is: I am the Son of the Father, the fullness and meaning of a true man, a king who is willing to be a father to his children, the shepherd of his flock. Christ’s agony was to trust his father, to trust that his Abba would see him through his greatest challenge. Jesus must trust that, even if he does sacrifice himself unto death, his father will raise him to new life and glorify him. This is my battle, your battle—every man’s battle—the battle for identity, for sonship, to trust that by sacrificing our attachments to the world’s mercy that God the Father will grant us the power and means to sacrifice ourselves and be glorified. St. Paul tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). In other words, everything depends upon us allowing ourselves to led by the spirit of Abba—even into conflict—trusting that when he does lead us into conflict or challenge it is for the purpose of purifying us to become men of freedom, men who are capable of truly loving without seeking gain. This is true mercy.
Joseph’s Identity—Our Identity
When Joseph had initially withdrawn from his vocational path—his path toward his true identity—the angel declared to him, “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary thy wife, for the child which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” God’s words awaken Joseph to his identity: You are a son of David, of royal stock—yes, of human origin, but also a son of mine, a king. Joseph must become the king of the King of Kings by becoming a father to the Son of the Father, and to do this he must be a man who sacrifices himself for his bride, which demands that he become a most trusting son. The four marks of Jesus’ and Joseph’s identity—the son, the man, the father, and the king—are also the four marks of our true identity.
Receive Mercy to Give Mercy
During the Holy Mass we pray “Lord have mercy.” We are not only asking God to forgive us, but also imploring him to help us detach ourselves from our compromises with the Devil. We are asking God to free us from being enslaved to our passions and sins. Lord have mercy—detach me from lust, pornography, this affair, so that I may be free to love without selfish gain. Lord have mercy—detach me from the love of money and comfort, so that I may give without counting the cost, without cheating another, without expecting any return. Lord have mercy—detach me from my dependency upon my good reputation, my accomplishments, my plans for success, and free me to trust that you love me simply because you made me to be yours, to be your son. Lord have mercy—detach me from wanting to be accepted, immortalized, honored by men, so that I may be free in you. Recently, I was confessing my sins to a priest and he said, “Your sins and tendencies toward sin are not an evil force that lives within you. It is a force that comes from outside of you, attempting to convince you that you are evil, that you are not a chosen son of God. Go to the Father and allow him to enfold you in his cloak.” The imagery is stunning. The priest is evoking the image of the prodigal son who returns to his father after squandering his inheritance. The biblical account implies that the father never gave up on his son. Never. Daily he scanned the horizon, searching anxiously for his son—hoping against all hope that he would one day return. Then, the day that he sees a speck on the horizon that resembles his malnourished, lonely, and failed son, he sprints out to him. He madly dashes to embrace him. A Middle Eastern man who ran was understood to be immature and childish. And to run to a son who had squandered his inheritance—pure foolishness. Yet the father ran to his son, embraced him, covered him in his cloak. Let us return to the Father, our Abba. Let us allow him to enfold us, cover us, and protect us under his cloak. Let us allow him to convince us that we are not evil, that we are not trash, that we are more than the fools the evil one believes us to be—that we are above being bought out by false mercies. Let us hear and embrace the words our Father speaks to each and every one of us: “You are my beloved son.” Because when we do, we will begin to transmit this same love to our children—we will become fathers of mercy.