Imagine that you wake up at 2:00 in the morning, and you think to yourself, Is my life really pleasing to God? What would help you determine that?
Would it be based on how many times a week you're having devotions and Bible studies and prayer? Or how well you're keeping your anger under control? Or maybe whether your thought life is either running away or being reigned in? What are the things that would be on your list?
Are the things on your list and my list the same as those on God's list?
After many years in the Christian life, one surprising discovery I've made about God is that something very high on God's list—something that is pleasing to him and that he desires—was not on my list. It really doesn't matter what we think might be on God's list, what we think would be pleasing to him; what really matters is what is actually pleasing to him.
Early in my marriage, when I came home from solving problems at the publishing company, I would say, "Hey, Hon, how was your day?" And she would say, "Terrible. The kids were fighting with each other all day long, and I couldn't get them to stop, and it was miserable." And I would say, "Maybe you should try separating them more." At which point my wife would say, "You just don't understand!" and then she'd start to cry.
I was so befuddled. Some of you are probably thinking, You poor, pitiful fool. I was! I thought that was pleasing to her until she sat me down and taught me a better way. She said, "When you try to solve my problem, that's not actually what I want. What I really want is for you to show me empathy." I said, "Oh, so when you tell you me you had a terrible day because the kids were fighting, it would really please you if I said, 'Wow, that sounds hard, I'm sorry. But you are an awesome mom and our kids are so blessed to have you.'" She said, "Yes, that's what would be pleasing to me."
The same dynamic happens in our relationship with God. We follow our list because we think it's pleasing to him, but he's saying, "Have you looked at my list of what is pleasing to me?"
The mercy-loving Savior
Turn to Matthew 9:9. As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew, sitting at his tax collector's booth. When we hear that phrase, "sitting at his tax collector's booth," mentally we translate that to "sitting at his bank teller counter," or "sitting in his gray IRS office." But the people in Jesus' day heard that statement with an emotional resonance that was more like this: "sitting in his crack house." Because as soon as they heard "tax collector," they knew this person was not just rich, but filthy rich, because he was making his money destroying other people's lives.
When the hated, pagan Roman army came in and took over Israel, oppressed them, and exploited them, they maintained control by recruiting local people who knew the language and knew the culture to be their tax collectors. They said, "We need you to collect at least $10,000 a week from this area of people, and whatever you collect beyond that, is yours. And nobody can stop you."
There was a huge upside: you could make loads of money as a tax collector by extorting from your own people. These poor, working class people were just trying to get by, but every time they caught fish, the tax collectors were there taxing their fish, taking some of them. And every time they grew crops and were happy because they wouldn't go hungry, the tax collectors took most of the good crops from them. So when it says, "Matthew was sitting in a tax collector's booth," it's saying, "He was greedy. He was a sellout. He was a betrayer of his people."
What does Jesus say to somebody like that? Does he say, "Clean up your life, man. You've got to get it together"? Does he say, "I see potential in you. If you will enter a four-year training program, I think I can do something with you"?
No, he says, "Follow me, and be my disciple." Jesus looks at this greedy, sellout-of-a-person, and says, "I want you as one of my 12 closest friends. I want you as one of the most influential leaders in this new movement of God that I am bringing to the world."
Maybe the reason some of you are here this morning is to hear this: Jesus did not make a mistake when he chose you. He knew exactly what he was doing. He said, "Come with me. Be my disciple. Learn from me, and I've got work for you to do."
But it gets worse than that. Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. Why does Matthew invite people like that? Because the good people will not be seen with him. So these are the only friends he's got.
Imagine for a moment that you and I got invited to a party with "disreputable sinners." You sit down at your table and there are a few other people at the table. You turn to the person on your left and say, "Hey, you look familiar. Have we met?" He says, "No, I don't think so, but you probably know me. My name is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." And you chuckle nervously and say, "Yeah, actually I do know you." And then to the person on your right you say, "I'm pretty sure I have never met you!" And she says, "My name is Casey Anthony. You may remember me. I was the mother who allegedly killed her own daughter and then got away with it." You say, "Oh, blond hair and dark glasses—you're doing a makeover!"
This is the kind of party Jesus is attending. And when the Pharisees see this, they say, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum? Do you not realize, Jesus, that by attending, you are condoning what they're doing? Apparently, the way they act is okay with you. Is it not clear that the steak you're cutting into was paid for with money that was extorted from the poor, who are now, because of that, not going to eat meat for two weeks? Have you not read where the Scripture, the sacred Word of God in Psalm 1, says 'Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers?' Don't you understand that God is pleased by a holy life which is won by separating yourself from the unholy?"
How does Jesus answer in verse 12? "When Jesus heard this, he said, 'Healthy people don't need a doctor. Sick people do.'" In our culture of tolerance, we say, "Nobody's bad; nobody's really sick." Jesus doesn't do that. He doesn't sugarcoat the fact that these people are sick. But he says, "There are two reasons to be in a hospital: either you're sick or you're a doctor. It's more pleasing to God for you to be there serving the sick, than to separate yourself from the sick."
The call to show mercy
Verse 13 is the heart of Jesus' message, the heart of a surprising discovery for me and perhaps for you about God: "Then Jesus added, 'Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture,'" and he quotes from the prophet Hosea: "I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous but those who know they are sinners."
Turn to Hosea 6:6. God says to the prophet Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." That's what's pleasing to God. God is saying through the prophet Hosea and now through the mouth of his dear Son that the hot, burning core of the Godhead is mercy.
He's not saying that sacrifice does not matter to God. This is a poetic phrase of emphasis. Sacrifice is absolutely essential to the Judeo-Christian system of worship and system of life. Every week we celebrate Jesus' sacrifice for us, and we bring our own sacrifice in terms of money and time and prayer and other sacrifices that are pleasing to him. He's saying, "As important, and as awesome as sacrifice is, there's something even more pleasing to God: mercy." Mercy for the messy is more pleasing to God than religion for the righteous.
We could take this a step further and say that, as important as it is for you and me to get our spiritual lives together, it is even more pleasing to the heart of God that we show mercy to people who don't have their spiritual lives together.
That is a surprising discovery about God. I thought that God was most interested in my daily quiet time, or maybe how much I'm tithing. That would make my spirituality my personal project. Instead, Jesus says, "No, I see your heart and things like having a quiet time and tithing as good things, but it would be more wonderful and more pleasing to me if you showed mercy to people to whom I would show mercy. Can you choose them like I chose Matthew? Can you go to their dinner parties like I went to his?"
To be honest, it's a lot easier for me to add one more Bible study than it is to show mercy to the messy. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and daughter and I were in Sarasota, Florida. We were in a Barnes & Noble, and my daughter Anne suddenly passed out and collapsed. She hit her head on the display table or the floor or both, because people heard her fall but didn't see it. The EMTs examined her and said, "You should really get to a hospital." The doctors discovered that she had hit her head so hard that she had what they call a "subarachnoid hematoma," bleeding on the brain. So they admitted her for further testing and observation. I was so impressed with the nurses there, because they were so kind to her. They would lean over the bed and say, "How are you doing?" And they would take her hand and pat it and say, "I hope you feel better, honey." This is the South, where they call you "Honey." And then, because it was the Bible Belt, some of them said, "I'm praying that you'll get better real soon."
It was so sweet. And I thought, Man, that's wonderful. But on the other side of a very thin curtain in the room I noticed a patient who was about Anne's age, but there was no mercy there. The hospital staff said things like, "Wake up. Wake up. Come on now," talking to her in a rough tone. I didn't understand until they started to examine her. She started swearing at them like a sailor: "What the *blank,* you *blankety-blanks.* Why are you so late? Why are you doing this to me, you blank, blank, blank?*"
I thought, Okay, they're trying to help her and she's swearing at them, so maybe that's why. But the real answer came out the next morning. The doctor came in on his rounds, and instead of coming over to the bed like he'd done with Anne, taking her hand and looking her in the eye and smiling at her, the doctor stood back about five feet from the end of the bed—right in line with my vision, where I was sitting on the other side of the room. He yelled at the patient, "So where does your arm hurt? Show me your arm. Wow, that's quite an abscess. Do you shoot up?"
"When was the last time you shot up?"
"What are you shooting up with?"
"Have you had an HIV test? Okay, we're going to have to get that abscess lanced."
And then he left. He did his professional duty, but he showed no mercy—unsurprisingly, because inside their hearts, the medical professionals are thinking, You brought this on yourself. I know we're going to see you back here in about three weeks. As it turns out, this was the third time this abscess had been treated.
But if Jesus went into that same hospital room, he would lean over and take her hand and say, "I'm here for you. I hope you feel better, honey. I'm praying for you." This is what pleases the heart of God. He says, "I desire mercy. Even more than sacrifice."
The practice of mercy
What does this mean for you and me as we try to apply this word from Jesus? Start by thinking of someone in your life who's hard to show mercy to. Maybe the person is narcissistic. Maybe they're inconsistent. Maybe they're inconsiderate. Maybe they're a relative. Maybe they're religious and judgmental, and that combination drives you nuts! Whatever it is, think of that person.
As you're thinking about someone to whom it is hard for you to show mercy, don't choose someone who is abusive toward you. That takes a lot of pastoral wisdom about setting appropriate boundaries and such. Don't choose someone who pulls you down into sin whenever you're around them. To use Jesus' analogy, your immune system is not strong enough yet for you to be their doctor. Choose someone else. Do you have somebody in mind?
The good news is that God has already provided you with a way to please him by showing mercy to others. Everyone has somebody messy who has been bequeathed to them by God. So you don't have to go far away to find what is pleasing to God.
The internal shift
I'm going to ask you to do two things: an internal thing, and an external thing. Internally, put yourself at the head of the sin line, in front of that person. This is a phrase that our Senior Pastor Stewart Ruch has used with us on the staff, and it's been very helpful in a lot of situations. It's taken from Paul's statement in 1 Timothy where he says, "I'm the chief of sinners. I'm the worst." Paul was not just adding a little rhetorical flourish or false humility; he really believed it. How do you get yourself into that framework, where you can put yourself at the head of the sin line? Here are some suggestions.
First think, My need is the same as yours. Take me sitting in the hospital room with the heroin addict. I was trying to get some sleep at 4:30 in the morning, thinking, Maybe I could nod off for a few minutes if you would stop swearing f-bombs at the people trying to help you. But what if I stepped back and thought, My need is the same as your need. My daughter fell and hit her head; I have a need to know that she is okay. Somewhere along the line, you fell and hit your soul. I don't know what it was; I'm guessing you grew up unloved, maybe neglected or even abused. You were kicked to the curb by life, and you reached the point where you said to yourself, 'I need some way—any way—to make this pain stop. And if I'd had those same set of circumstances because my need to be loved, and my need to have the pain stop, I may have done the same thing.
Then, once you reach that place where you realize, My need is the same as yours, then you move to, My danger is greater than yours. She was hooked on heroin, but I'm hooked on pride. I want everybody to think that my spiritual life is together. And pride is the most insidious of all sins. It got Satan thrown down out of heaven. When pride gets mixed in with religion, it is toxic. If you mix pride with religious leadership, it's devastating.
You'll know you've gotten to the right frame of mind internally when you want to cry out, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! How is it that I think I am so pleasing to you when I'm checking off my Bible studies, but I have carefully structured my life to spend as little time as possible with people who are messy and narcissistic and addicted and a wreck. How could I possibly think I am better than them? What was going on in my heart? My only hope is that you, who chose a greedy sellout like Matthew to be one of your closest followers, would choose me."
The external shift
When that's settled in your heart, you can take the next step, an external step: move towards other people with compassion and mercy. You can move toward them instead of away from them, getting close enough so that you'll get the invitation to their dinner party, close enough that you'll accept it. I like what one of our mid-sized community groups has done. They were trying to decide, "Are we going to meet every week, or are we going to meet every other week?" Not that there is something wrong with meeting every week, but they decided to meet every other week, and on the off-weeks, each person meets with a neighbor. They get together to connect. Here's how people connect (and it's not that hard): They connect over coffee or beer, kids or dogs, sports, music, or movies. So connect. Move toward this person, not away from them.
Imagine what will happen if you and I begin to take to heart this call of the Lord that says, "I desire mercy; it is so pleasing to me." Across our two services this morning, we probably have 600 adults. What will happen if 600 people who need the mercy of the Lord experience that mercy? I don't know how they'll respond to it. Maybe they'll reject it. It doesn't matter. You're showing them the heart of the Lord, who desires mercy. You're pleasing him. God's heart fills up with joy when he sees his children acting the way he would act. He takes it to heart. He's so delighted that he applauds as you and I take these halting steps, to show mercy toward the messy.
God's given us a deep call of healing, and he's ramping up this vision for the low, the lost, and the least. How do we bring love and healing, friendship, encouragement, and support for people who are spiritually broken and relationally broken and financially broken? How do we come alongside them in love? This is the heart of it.
Creative planning is awesome, but if that's all you got, and you don't have mercy from the heart of God, they'll say, "That was interesting, but man, they seem smug." And that is not our heart here. That is not what we're about—some sort of cold and clinical Christianity. But imagine them coming in when not only is the programming creative, but it includes a heart of mercy for the messy. They'll say, "I don't consider myself that religious, but these people over here care for people. They seem authentic, they seem genuine, they seem like they actually want me around."
And all of a sudden, the eyes of their spiritual hearts will open up. They will say, "Jesus wants to come and have dinner with me."
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,