"Ring the bells, this time I mean it
Bid the hatred fare thee well
Give back the pieces of my Jesus
Take your counterfeit to hell.
Bang the drums, this means war
And not the kind you’re waiting for
We say mercy won’t be rationed here
That’s what we’re fighting for."
-Johnnyswim, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
I don’t think it’s fair to say that words like “mercy” and “grace” and “forgiveness” are missing from the lexicon of our day and age. Most people I know don’t demand moral perfection from their pastors or politicians or movie stars. There is a general understanding that people will be people, complete with all of their warts and flaws, and that means screw-ups will happen. In other words, the phrase “nobody’s perfect” is still very much operative, which means that overlooking missteps and accepting people in spite of their weaknesses are standard relational necessities.
But only to an extent.
At some point, we feel the need to draw a line drawn in the sand and say, “Mercy can only extend this far. Anything up to this line is forgivable, and anything beyond it is not.” In other words, we tend to ration mercy.
To ration something is to limit it. It is to say, “Only this much and no more!” Stranded on a desert island with limited resources, survivors are forced to numerically allot daily portions to each person, since there is no endless supply of food and water. And if anyone uses up their pre-portioned amount, they’re left with a parched tongue and a rumbling belly. They’ve made their bed, and now they have to lie in it.
We tend to do the same thing with mercy: We ration it, dole it out in portions, and allot a specific amount to each individual. And if anyone exceeds their threshold by sinning too much or too often or in ways we find particularly uncouth, then they’re on their own and they’ll just have to get what’s coming to them.
As human beings, we usually think that mercy should have limits; that it should never exceed its confines. This attitude is rooted deeply in the human heart. In Matthew 18:21, one of Jesus’ own disciples attempts to draw such a line in the sand by putting this question to Him: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” For Peter, seven was the mercy ration threshold he deemed sufficient.
Where does such an attitude stem from? In response to Peter’s question, Jesus says this (Matthew 18:22): “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” He then tells a parable to illustrate his point (Matthew 18:23-35). The jist of it is this: A servant owes a king a massive debt—more than he could work off in many lifetimes. But the king, rather than demanding he pay it back in full, extends mercy and completely cancels the debt, forgiving everything and taking the cost upon himself. The servant, however, immediately goes out and finds a servant of his own who owes him a few dollars. But rather than extending mercy, he throws him in prison until he can pay back every last penny. When the king finds out about this, he justly issues this condemnation: “You wicked servant. I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”
What Jesus is driving at here is that human beings by nature are afflicted with spiritual amnesia. In our efforts to ration mercy to others, we forget how much mercy we ourselves have received. Blinded by spiritual pride and puffed up with self-righteousness, we see ourselves as less in need of God’s grace than others, and we forget how much it cost God to pay our debt (1 Peter 1:18-19): “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
If a daily dollop of mercy was all that we were allotted, we’d be in deep trouble.
But thanks be to God that He doesn’t issue such rations. In Jesus’ parable, “seventy-seven” is just another way of saying “infinitely many.” In other words, there is no limit to how far God’s forgiveness extends. There is no crevice too low, no sin too well-worn, and no transgression too heinous for His mercy to reach. Every single time it overflows its banks and rushes headlong into the brokenness of the human heart to cleanse and restore. And it does so without discretion, without limit, and even without our permission. Because it is gifted, not earned. It is received, not produced. And it is not dependent on your moral performance, but on the performance of another in your place.
And He is not one to withhold mercy. There are no rations here. Just an endless, overflowing stream of grace from the heart of a God who gave it all for you.