When Truth and Mercy Meet

Truth and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are core values of the Christian faith, but I have often struggled to understand how they can fit together without cancelling each other out. It’s the real-life situations that pose the riddles: the guy who deserted his wife for his new “true love” and, after falling on hard times, wants to get back together. The preacher who abused his son throughout childhood and remains in the ministry. The church leaders that bullied and exploited a young woman and then excommunicated her. How can truth, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation all be honored in cases like these?

We are supposed to forgive, no exceptions apparently. And we are supposed to be agents of reconciliation because our God is a God of reconciliation. But we are also supposed to be a truth-loving and truth-telling people. We are supposed to hunger and thirst for justice, fight for it even, weep for it before the Holy One. How is all this compatible?

mercy and truth2

I’d be lying if I said I had it all worked out. But recently I found a few things, two articles especially (linked below), that have helped me towards a better understanding.

I suppose I thought forgiveness was more or less releasing the offender from responsibility and not allowing myself any more negative feelings towards them. This, however, left truth and justice completely out of the equation and was deeply unsatisfying.

The first thing to understand about forgiveness, I learned, is that it does not erase the offender’s responsibility nor the consequences of his actions. It is an attitude of the heart. It can exist even if the offender is unrepentant, and even if closure has not yet been reached.

Forgiveness is a process of releasing anger and vengeance to avoid the deadly onset of bitterness and darkness. And, it is the positive desire for good and not evil to befall the offender, that they might get the help they need and not be abandoned to darkness themselves.[1]

Or, in Desmond Tutu’s words, “In the act of forgiveness, we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to change. We are welcoming a chance to make a new beginning.”

Reconciliation – on the other hand – can only happen when the offender commits to facing the truth and taking responsibility for his actions. It cannot happen on the basis of the victim’s forgiveness alone; it requires specific steps to be taken by the offender.

True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.[2]

Truth and justice cannot be brushed aside in the pursuit of reconciliation because they are an integral part of it. “In the justly famous phrase of Miroslav Volf, there must be ‘exclusion’ before there can be ’embrace’: evil must be identified, named, and dealt with before there can be reconciliation. And – this is of course the crunch – where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.”[3]

Very recently someone met this challenge in a powerful way. At great personal cost, Rachael Denhollander illustrated what it looks like when mercy and truth meet, and righteousness and peace embrace. She could do this, of course, because she herself had previously faced truth and received mercy, righteousness and peace at the Cross.

May God bring us to love mercy and truth enough to be – as N. T. Wright put it – “justified justice-bringers, reconciled reconcilers” in all our dealings.

[1] Zach Hoag,http://www.christianweek.org/3-characteristics-authentic-forgiveness/
[2] Desmond Tutu, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/truth_and_reconciliation#gsc.tab=0
[3] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 179