Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now … He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
— From a short story by Flannery O’Connor
Growing up in Tennessee, one of my favorite Southern exclamations was the wonderfully endearing phrase, “Oh, bless your heart!”—always uttered, of course, in a mellifluous drawl. (Yes, such well-wishes are as pleasant to receive as you think they are.) Yet another interjection which I hear much less often since leaving Tennessee is the classically Southern “Lord, have mercy!” All too often these days, when God’s name is invoked in times of trial or stress, it is rarely to give Him glory or implore His mercy. Even in the genteel South, it seems somewhat odd that the standard reaction to a difficult situation should be an appeal to the blessings and mercy of God.
These two delightful phrases express a wish for the same thing—for how does God bless hearts if not by having mercy on them? Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, / whose sin is remitted (Ps 32:1). As Flannery O’Connor’s Mr. Head comes to realize, God loves in proportion as He forgives: the love and mercy of God are coterminous, they are two names for the same reality. When God forgives, it is an act of love; when He manifests His love for us despite our sins, it is an act of mercy. As the Psalmist famously wrote, the sinner begs forgiveness in the name of God’s merciful love and great compassion (Ps 51:3).
The grace of God’s mercy not only forgives our sins, but also humbles and transforms us. This is exactly what happens to Mr. Head after his most egregious offense:
He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair.
When we receive this grace which we do not—in fact, cannot—deserve, our lowliness is revealed to us, as is the boundless love of the One who forgives. This humbling effect of mercy saves us from despair. If the full extent of our sinfulness were revealed to us while still caught in pride’s snare, we would recognize our utter inability to overcome our sinfulness by our own powers (no man, after all, can absolve his own sin), but we would be like the proud Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, incapable of calling out to the Lord for mercy (Lk 18:9–14). But thanks be to God, whose mercy endures forever! For the humility wrought in our hearts by His mercy “covers our pride like a flame and consumes it,” saves us from despair, and blesses our hearts with hope.
Image: T.C. Steele, Tennessee Scene