The Practice of Mercy

Ask God to do what we cannot

a man thinking while looking out the window
Monthly graphic for January, focusing on faith & forgiveness featuring an image of friends embracing

Anyone can tell you the three basic necessities for human life: food, clothing, and shelter. But what are the three basic necessities for Christian discipleship? Prayer? Study of scripture? Service? Regular church attendance? Working for justice? Carrying a tune? 

Graciously, Jesus left disciples with a ready answer in the Lord’s Prayer: food, protection, and forgiveness. Forgiveness ranks alongside food and protection as one of three basic necessities for discipleship. Pointedly, Jesus couples the need to forgive with the need to be forgiven. When thinking about forgiveness, we typically assume separate job descriptions for the victim and the offender. The victim needs to forgive; the perpetrator needs to be forgiven. In the world of discipleship, though, there’s no such separation. Jesus sends disciples into the world as “forgiven forgivers.” What’s going on here? 

I want to argue that forgiveness as a practice trains disciples in the disposition of mercy, so that they can “be merciful, as their Father in heaven is merciful” (see Luke 6:36). As a practice of mercy, forgiveness has three distinct movements: repenting, remembering, and reconciling. Let’s examine each in turn.


Too often repentance gets remanded to offenders: they repent, so that victims can forgive. In contrast, the Lord’s Prayer demands repentance on all sides, counseling everyone to step away from violence. Here, repentance invites victims and offenders alike to confess their desire to follow the Dark Side of the Golden Rule, “I could do unto you what you have done unto me—and then some!” The desire for revenge unleashes a cycle of violence that only escalates. I kill a lamb from your flock; you take out my entire flock. I respond by kidnapping your daughter; you murder my entire family. Retaliations ramp up, and suddenly everyone is at her neighbor’s throat. 

Against such carnage, the ancient Sumerian Code of Hammurabi prescribed the limit:  “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” These ancient sages knew it was all too easy to take someone’s life for an eye and to raze an entire village for a tooth. They conceded that violence was a way of life and tried to contain it. 

Forgiveness can become a way of life through repenting on the part of both victim and offender. When every cell in the body strains for revenge, repenting confesses that desire and refuses to respond in kind. Repentance refuses to throw fuel on the fire, and without anything left to burn, the fire burns itself out. Repenting is the first movement in the practice of forgiveness, and the desire for revenge is its chief temptation. 


This second movement in the practice of forgiveness seems contrary to popular advice to “forgive—and forget.”  It allows space to create a dangerous memory, because it challenges everyone to build a truthful recollection of the past, without the danger of reinjury or the revival of fresh rage. This is incredibly difficult to do; indeed, it is a miracle of grace that this kind of re-membering happens at all.  

We get an example of this dangerous memory in the way the risen Christ interfaced with disciples who’d betrayed him. After professing his undying loyalty, Peter denied Jesus three times. Judas betrayed him with a kiss, and betrayal is the sin in the friendship. All the disciples betrayed him in great ways and small. As Bonhoeffer observes, Jesus was crucified between two common criminals, not two of his disciples. His friends had scattered.

After the resurrection, the disciples went into hiding, probably as afraid of running into the risen Christ as they were of being found by the Roman authorities. According to John’s gospel, Jesus came to them in a room where the doors were barred. He greets the disciples with one word, and he has to repeat it three times, so that the forgiveness sinks in: “Peace be with you.” “Peace.” “Peace.” And after forgiving them, Jesus charges them with a ministry of compassion: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20). As they move out into the world, the memory of their own betrayals and Jesus’ lavish forgiveness shapes their own ministries of mercy. In forgiving, they remember their own need for forgiveness. In remembering their own need for forgiveness, they forgive. As forgiveness fuses with remembering, the disciples become forgiven forgivers. Remembering is the second movement in the practice of forgiveness, and amnesia is its chief temptation.


The hardest words in the whole of scripture are ones that challenge Christians to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27). It’s worth noting that disciples are counseled to love enemies as enemies, not as friends or family, but simply another child of God, whom God loves and over whom God weeps. 

Commanding love of enemies as enemies was a gesture of defiance in a period of persecution. It was also a gesture that comported with everything Jesus did when he was alive. He related without discrimination to people whom others had easily labeled “the enemy.” He healed the servant of a Roman centurion, and Romans were “enemy” to the Jews. He resuscitated the daughter of a leader of the synagogue, and religious leaders were “enemy” to the poor. He hung out with tax collectors, who were pretty much “enemy” to everyone! Jesus’ love of all kinds of different people signals to disciples then and now: “If you travel with me, you can’t afford to have enemies. It will be too confusing to keep track of who they are.”  

But is reconciliation always possible? Are some sins unforgivable?  Are some sinners impossible to forgive? It seems like we’re being asked to do something beyond all human capabilities. 

It’s worth noting that even Jesus found it impossible to forgive. Remember how during the crucifixion, he confronts the powers of darkness alone, abandoned by most of friends and disciples. From the cross he reaches for a forgiveness he can’t find within himself to offer. He asks his Father to forgive what he cannot. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). In these words, Jesus leaves disciples a way to deal with the unforgivable. We can ask God to forgive what we cannot—what we cannot forgive in ourselves or in others. 

C.S. Lewis writes of his inability to forgive a long-dead schoolmaster’s physical and emotional abuse. Over and over again, he asked God to do something he couldn’t. After years, he wrote to a friend: “Last week while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying and praying that I might.” Forgiveness finally found him. Reconciling is the third movement in forgiveness and hatred is its chief temptation.

Jesus counsels his disciples to ask daily for the grace to forgive and to be forgiven. Over time and in community, he trains disciples in the practice of mercy and sends them into the world as forgiven forgivers.

Works referenced:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (SCM/Macmillan, 1961).

Mary Hayes Grieco, Unconditional Forgiveness (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Timothy Keller, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking, 2022).

C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt Brace, 1992).

Martha E. Stortz, A World According to God (Jossey-Bass, 2004).

  • Martha E. Stortz

    Martha E. Stortz is an everyday disciple called to teach, write, speak, and wonder. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including A World According to God: Practices for Putting Faith at the Center of Your Life (2004) and Blessed to Follow: The Beatitudes as a Compass for Discipleship (2008). As a teaching theologian, she held positions at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary/Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley CA and Augsburg University in Minneapolis MN.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Get notified every time we post on building healthy communities.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.