“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.”
Ever sing the classic Michael Jackson song? It’s catchy. There is one real problem with the song, however: it relies on self-reflection and the self improving the self.
I often look into the mirror first. I often catch myself believing the lie that I can somehow begin with my own failures and create change in myself. I will find an issue and then want my own reflection to change itself. Many Christians, no doubt, have taken up this same mantra of self-improvement.
As is so often the case with other secular worldviews, we may even notice a modicum of success. Positive changes can come by sheer strength of will sometimes! The problem with self-willed self-improvement, however, is that sin and failure do not posses the ability to heal our broken souls.
God does not use sin to bind up the wounds of life. Sin is a gangrenous sore festering at the core of our being. Such infections cannot be removed by human willpower. Sin must be cleansed by grace. The stitches which God uses to suture our lives is mercy.
Hebrews helps make the point clear:
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Self-improvement and sanctification stem from different places. Self-improvement focuses on the self—specific sins and failures to be overcome. However, sanctification—Christian growth—ought not begin with self-reflection, but rather with self-abdication. There can only be one man in the mirror—Jesus or myself. We do not change by focusing on failures and sin. We change by drawing near to God. We grow by kneeling before the throne of grace.
That which is true about ourselves is true of our neighbors as well; relationships heal when mercy flourishes. As we are to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, others should be equally confident in drawing near to us. Reminders of past failures and sins should not frequent our marriages, friendships, or our families.
Below are two suggestions for helping cultivate a relationship built on mercy rather than self-reflection:
1. Sacrificial Love Heals
The consequences of sin are real. Equally real are the consequences of sacrificial love. Prodigal sons don’t need a laundry-list of changes to be made before being welcomed home. The parable from Christ is clear—the Father runs to and embraces the prodigals. When we sacrifice our right to anger or justice upon the altar of love, we let God’s example (the example of his Son) heal our wounds. Convalescence begins with mercy.
Let mercy be the outward flourishing of all relationships. Just as the Father forgives, forgive. Sin cannot unite. Reminding people of their past sins cannot unite. Mercy alone binds us to Christ and therefore to each other.
2. Mercy is Fruitful
Do our children trust us with their tough emotions? Can a friend come to us in confidence? God’s mercy leads the psalmist, David, to come boldly before God to ask for mercy. God has shown himself to be merciful. Since we know God is merciful, we can come with open hearts and confess our sins to him—sins he already knows. Therefore, by cultivating mercy in our relationships, those who know us can come to discuss the deepest wounds of sin.
When we allow sin to keep our relationships at arms-length, we make mercy superficial. Keep in mind Jesus’s parable. If we choke everyone who owes us a penny, should the King (our Father in heaven) forgive us of our mountains of debt? If God used the same measure of mercy that we use, could we come to his throne confident in his mercy?
Herein lies the real problem. In order to have mercy on someone, we have to be wounded by them. With such deep wounds, how can we be as merciful as God? That’s a man-in-the-mirror question. And we all have a tendency to start with the man in the mirror. But, if instead we begin with Christ in the mirror, we can know his mercy will change our ways. Our mercy to others ought to be a pure reflection of God.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of five, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU