In the first article I mentioned that I have found the Beatitudes to be in a sequence that matches the consulting problems I encountered. The fifth most common problem I find with leaders and people in organizations is that people do not give mercy when mercy is needed. This article presents the meaning of the fifth Beatitude — “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” — and shows how we should live our lives because of this principle.
What does it mean to be merciful?
The Greek eleemon that we translate as merciful holds a meaning very similar to what we find in the English — one of the few Beatitudes that translates equivalently. Only one other time in the New Testament do we see the actual word eleemon used; instead, the more common occurrence is eleos or eleeo, depending on which lexicon you use, a word that translates as mercy.
Eleos/eleeo is what we find in the Romans 12 spiritual gifts when Paul says that those who have mercy should do so with cheerfulness. Of interest: The concept of “cheerfulness” includes a sense of quickness; thus it might be useful to think about the notion that those who are merciful show mercy cheerfully and quickly.
Mercy, in the context of eleos/eleeo, means kindness or goodwill by people for people and to people. The meaning of the word implies that those who are merciful show mercy to those who need it. This latter part of the definition is a key consideration — some people need mercy and some don’t. The concept of eleos/eleeo, though, is not clear on how one knows who needs mercy and who doesn’t. Thus we have to consider each situation to see if mercy is appropriate.
Human justice can be quite brutal and, according to Aristotle, it’s mercy that seasons justice and makes justice more humane.
(By the way, although a topic for another article, are you aware that one of the four faces that John saw on the angelic while he was on the Island of Patmos receiving what would later become the book of Revelation was the face of “man” (anthropos) that connotes humaneness? It may be that there’s a tie between this Beatitude and the anthropos face of the being. But, for now, we need to focus on how mercy explains part of how we should live our lives.)
The Code of Hammurabi mentions an example of justice: If a builder builds a house and the roof falls in and hurts someone in the house, then that builder is to be put to death. A bit harsh some say; a bit merciless. The thing is, mercy may be appropriate if the builder was unaware of some condition that would not be expected such as material deficiency or unstable ground, or if the owner used the building for purposes unknown to the builder.
I recall a time when one of our employees deleted the student database — a sizeable problem indeed. I came to work on a Monday morning and the database was gone. I asked the staff about it and no one knew anything. So, I began the process of working with our IT department to recover the last backed up copy of the file, knowing that we would have to redo a few days’ work.
About mid-day one of the staff came in crying, telling me that she must have deleted the file. She told me that she had been in on Sunday finishing up a project and that the file was there. She checked with all the other staff and no one worked on it since she had. She said she knew she would be fired for this.
We talked through the process of what she did so that I could understand it; during the conversation she mentioned something, something that I wanted to see for myself. To demonstrate what she had said we built a test database, saved it, had her add data and I asked her to save the file while I watched. She clicked on the “save” button (I noticed that the delete button was right next to the “save” button) and a dialogue box came asking, “Are you sure?” She quickly clicked the “OK” button.
I asked her if she had read the box and she said, “No, the box always comes up.” I asked her to open the file and click “delete.” A dialogue box came up that said, “Are you sure?” It looked just like the “save” dialogue box. I saw the problem. There was no need to reprimand her; she had just clicked the wrong button.
Mercy was called for here, as was the prior Beatitude of controlled discipline. The discipline for her was for me to show her how to relocate the “delete” button and then have her train everyone else in the office how to move the button. We never had the problem of a deleted database again. An employee was restored, as was the database, and all was well.
What are the benefits of being merciful?
The Beatitude gives us the benefit of obtaining mercy. Mercy is one of those things that doesn’t seem all that important until you need or want it. I recall hearing someone say that people want justice for everyone else but mercy for themselves. According to this Beatitude the way we get mercy is to first give it. I don’t think that this means we give mercy in all situations all the time — sometimes negative consequences need to occur. But, for the situations where we can use mercy, we need to know that there is reciprocity.
I recall a time when one of our employees violated university polices in order to help a student. Under the principle of Nomos, something that I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, the employee’s actions could be described as ruling according to love. However, the university operates under rules and, sometimes, logic — none of our policy manuals at the time allowed for the full use of Nomos.
According to policy the employee should have been fired. I knew what the employee did and why he did it. His heart was in the right place. I defended the employee and kept him from getting fired. About a year later I unintentionally offended the employee. My offense was great and could have resulted in a good employee quitting and creating a problem for me. The employee came to me and told me that he knew I did not mean to hurt him, and that because I showed him mercy a year earlier, he would show me mercy at this point. We continued as good employees working well for the organization, both a bit wiser about how are actions have consequences and how mercy can mitigate the consequences.
Being merciful shows the wisdom of decisions. Jesus’ actions with the woman who was being stoned for adultery showed the woman, and I presume, the people watching, that sometimes not punishing is better than punishing. I would further presume that Jesus is far better at knowing the intent of the heart than you and I are; this means that we have to perform due diligence about the behavior, the cause and the past track record of the person. Then, with good knowledge we can apply mercy where needed. The subsequent perception of wisdom can aid us with others when we make future decisions.
Being merciful gives others a sense of comfort in coming to you for decisions and to acknowledge to you when things go wrong. This is important in an organization, a family or in a relationship in that it allows concerns to surface and to be dealt with effectively and efficiently. When mercy is lacking there’s a tendency to cover up problems or not to readily admit to the problem.
Are you merciful?
How are you doing? When you have the opportunity/right/privilege to dispense justice do you quickly “pull the trigger” or do you stop and access all the elements of who, what, and why? Do you prefer to be known as merciful or a tough person? Today’s organizations seem to reward the tough person, but the tough people rarely win the hearts and heads of employees … and seem to only win their hands. A merciful supervisor can accomplish more in the long run when the employees’ hearts and heads are working for the supervisor.
When you need mercy, do you know that you have a “bank account” of mercy from which you will obtain mercy? If not, now may be the time to start.
Are you ready to start being merciful?
The process is easy — just start. When something happens that makes you upset and you want to administer justice, start thinking about what happened and why it happened. Was the intent of the person good or bad? Was the problem a lack of training or a lack of caring? The former might call for mercy while the latter might not. Is there a pattern of problems? First time offenses are good places for mercy, whereas a string of similar problems might reveal a need for justice rather than mercy.
To start — just remember to “stop,” “think,” “analyze” … and then ask what action is needed for the long term. Be merciful, and when you need it mercy will be there for you.
Copyright 2008 Bruce E. Winston, Ph.D. All rights reserved.