It goes without saying these days. The church should be a place of mercy and kindness in a world of constant judgment, a refuge of compassion in a world of cruelty, a source of clemency in a time of canceling. Yes to all this. It’s a mark of the church to embody a fierce commitment to welcoming sinners and exalting the Father who lavishes grace on the prodigal.

But what form should mercy take? What does mercy look like? What does it require?

In an era of expressive individualism in which the purpose of life is to find and express yourself, and in a time when we often turn to therapy to help us sort out the problems we face or look to our past and environment to better understand the sins we’ve committed, the aspiration to “be a place of mercy” or to “show compassion to sinners” is vague. Only the sinner fits into the frame. Mercy toward the sinned-against disappears. And even mercy toward the sinner gets diluted.

Sinful Split

Consider a local church where a small group leader leaves his wife for another woman in the congregation. His wife is heartbroken, his children crushed. Nothing is done in the church. There’s no response to the man’s sin. When asked, the pastor talks about the need to extend mercy toward those who mess up.

Later, the man goes through counseling and attributes his adultery to his environment growing up. He regrets the hurt he’s caused, but he doesn’t think he’s to blame. Two years go by, and the man and his new wife attend the same church, and he’s hoping to lead his small group again. The pastors in the church want to show compassion, so they celebrate the new marriage and reinstall him as a teacher.

Meanwhile, the children dealing with the aftermath of their father’s sin watch him across the aisle, an upstanding church member once again, sitting every Sunday with a woman who isn’t their mother. The woman whose life was upended sits alone. Anyone who questions the injustice of it all is told to be more compassionate—less rigid when it comes to discipline and moral standards.

In this case, Christianity has been reduced to “mercy” for the sinner, absent the corresponding call to holiness and Christlikeness. The cross that’s preached is one nobody is ever called to carry.

Dostoevsky and the Environment

Gary Saul Morson points to an essay from Fyodor Dostoevsky titled “Environment,” in which the Russian novelist opposed the idea that “mercy” means tracing all sins and crimes back to one’s environment. Blame-shifting for sin is a perennial challenge: Society is at fault for forming me this way. The wounds of my past are the reason I’ve wounded others. My wrongdoing is the result of my circumstances.

Dostoevsky described the state of Russian juries that exhibited a “mania for acquittal.” He mentions a peasant recently acquitted after brutally beating his wife in front of their daughter. The man’s humiliating treatment of his wife was sadistic. He’d starve her while leaving out bread and forbidding her to touch it. He’d hang her upside down in the house as he beat her. After enduring such ghastly torture, the woman hung herself. “Mama, why are you choking?” asked their little girl.

The jury found the peasant guilty of the crimes, yet still recommended clemency. Why? Because the poor peasant must be understood in context, as a product of his environment. It was the “backwardness, ignorance, the environment” ultimately responsible for his egregious behavior. Therefore, the jury said to show the peasant “mercy,” and his daughter was returned to him.

Dostoevsky was appalled. How could environment alone explain such behavior? After all, millions of peasants in poverty don’t treat their wives this way, he said. What kind of mercy is this?

Ennobling Mercy

Dostoevsky contrasts the jury’s clemency with Christian teaching about the nature of man. Yes, we can acknowledge and account for someone’s social environment and circumstances when considering their wrongdoing. And yes, a fuller understanding of someone’s background, or the wounds and suffering in the past, may lead us to sympathize at some level. The environment matters. But Christianity “still places a moral duty on the individual to struggle with the environment, and marks the line where the environment ends and duty begins.”

It isn’t merciful to reduce someone’s choices to their environment or upbringing. “The doctrine of the environment reduces him to an absolute nonentity,” Dostoevsky writes, “exempts him totally from every personal moral duty and from all independence, reduces him to the lowest form of slavery imaginable.” This kind of “mercy” dehumanizes the sinner, removes moral agency, and reduces one’s choices to social formation.

By contrast, Christianity—in holding people responsible for their actions—ennobles the sinner. Christianity affirms the value of human life and the reality of human freedom. Holding someone accountable is an aspect of showing mercy, of saying, You are a man and not a beast.

Takeaway for the Church Today

Self-righteousness carries a stench, and we’re right to root it out of our hearts and communities. The church is to be a place of mercy and love. The Bible’s vision of mercy and love, however, is expansive, not reductionist. We don’t pit mercy against justice, or compassion against doctrine, or grace against morality.

Christianity teaches that we’re designed by God. We have a destiny, a telos. We make choices within a moral framework designed to help us become what God has called us to be. Mercy doesn’t suspend morality. Compassion doesn’t dispense with doctrine. Kindness doesn’t attribute all our sinful acts to wounds in our past. Grace doesn’t keep us from making judgment calls.

True mercy extends forgiveness toward those who have engaged in real moral wrong. True mercy treats people as more than products of their environments. True mercy doesn’t excuse or minimize sin. True mercy ennobles us, reminding us of our glorious calling toward righteousness, while taking into account the need for compassion toward those who’ve been hurt by our sin.

Beware the mercilessness that masks itself as mercy.

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