“And you, O Lord, stood in the secret places of my soul, by a severe mercy redoubling my lashes of fear and shame, lest I should give way again.”

In Augustine’s account of his conversion, he describes his confrontation with a force that produces such a devastating awareness of his own guilt that he wants desperately to turn from the sight of it and hide. Yet it is this same force that will free him from his guilt. Augustine describes it as “severe mercy.” And although his narrative prepares the reader for this unusual characterization, the phrase is nonetheless puzzling. Mercy is free and easy; it is light and liberating. How then can it be severe in any way?

The question is important. Mercy is the only antidote for guilt, and if accepting it involves experiencing severity, should we not ask ourselves if we have truly encountered mercy if we have not experienced severity? We must, then, look carefully to see what it means to accept the mercy that God offers us. We must determine the “requirements” of this gift that is given to us without condition.

A comparison with accepting an ordinary gift will illuminate the idea. Although a person may give us a gift without expecting anything in return, we must meet certain requirements if we are to accept the gift. If the gift is something we can hold in our hands, we must take it into our hands. If it is wrapped, we must unwrap it.

Moreover, if the gift is given to us without condition, we must accept it as such. We cannot say, “Thank you. I’ll have to give you something sometime for giving this to me.” One of the requirements of accepting an unconditional gift is that we not act as if we have to earn the right to receive it.

God’s unconditional mercy also has “requirements.” They are not conditions that must be met if we are to be worthy of receiving it, for there are no conditions attached to God’s mercy. The requirements are, rather, part of what it means to accept the gift of mercy—seeing ourselves as we really are, giving up our efforts to justify ourselves, and being willing to abandon the activities and attitudes that need forgiving.

These requirements are severe in several ways: they strike at our deepest feelings about ourselves; they affect our conception of our identities; and they are painful and difficult to adopt.

Though the focus of what follows is on the harshness of accepting mercy, it is the lightness of mercy, the joy, tranquility, and liberation it produces, that are most prominent in our experience of it. These qualities are what we remember most about our encounters with mercy.

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The Naked Self

The first requirement for accepting God’s mercy is that we see ourselves as needing mercy. Mercy is forgiveness for an offense; it is acceptance in spite of guilt. We must, then, believe that we have committed an offense in order to believe that we are guilty; we must be aware that we are guilty in order to accept God’s acceptance of us. We must see ourselves as we really are.

This is the reason that mercy is severe—seeing ourselves as we really are is extraordinarily painful. Much of what we do in life is designed—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—to obscure that seeing, for we desperately do not want to admit, even to ourselves, that we are guilty before God.

To understand more deeply what is involved in seeing ourselves as we really are, we need to explore two ideas: that of being in God’s presence alone, and that of stripping away our self-deceptions. To be in God’s presence alone is to be confronted by his gaze with nothing to hide behind.

“By facing God alone we also face our own inner chaos,” writes Henri Nouwen. Under God’s gaze, we see into ourselves. His presence uncovers the defense mechanisms we use to salve the disquiet within us. No longer can we pretend that we are well-intentioned, decent persons without a trace of malice or lust.

“We come in direct confrontation,” continues Nouwen, “with our restlessness, anxieties, unresolved tensions, hidden animosities, and longstanding frustrations.” We realize that something is not right within us when we sit face to face with God.

Our first reaction to this encounter is to get up and run away. We do not want to look into ourselves because we do not like what we see. So we do something or think about something to divert our attention. We read, watch television, go shopping, or visit friends—anything to avoid meeting God alone or to cover up what we were made aware of when we did meet him. (Even Christian pursuits sometimes serve this purpose.)

And we deceive ourselves. Self-deception occurs when we deny something about ourselves that at some level we know to be true. It is lying to ourselves; we are both deceiver and deceived. This paradoxical phenomenon differs from mere refusal to admit the truth about ourselves or from simply not thinking the truth about ourselves, though it involves these. It is tricking ourselves into believing that we are better than we know we are; it is “forgetting” about some past action for which we know we are guilty; it is putting out of our minds the awareness of our rebellion against God; it is diverting our attention from the emptiness in our lives.

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Augustine describes his own self-deception: “You placed me in front of myself, and thrust me before my own eyes, so that I might find out my iniquity and hate it. I knew what it was, but pretended not to; I refused to look at it, and put it out of my memory.” God, however, did not let him get away with this evasion. He made Augustine look at himself again, and this time Augustine “stood stripped naked” before himself. His reaction was “speechless dread.”

Only when we place ourselves quietly and deliberately in front of God are the secret places in our hearts opened and the real motives of our behavior laid bare. Under this test, we discover the many ways in which we deceive ourselves: The pride, with which we imagine ourselves smarter, better looking, and more moral than others; the self-righteous motives, with which we think ourselves acting out of selfless love; the self-flattery, with which we convince ourselves that we actively live the Christian faith we hear about on Sunday mornings. In these ways and many others, we construct images of ourselves to cover up the reality we do not want to see.

There is one thing, and only one thing, however, that alleviates the pain of seeing ourselves as we really are, and that is knowing that God accepts us. Deep within us resides an intense need to know that we have worth. Guilt thwarts this need, since it brings with it the realization that we are failures. If we do not know of God’s offer of acceptance, we will flee with dread when we are stripped naked before ourselves.

But if we recognize God’s acceptance, we will be able to look at and accept our guilty selves. Accepting mercy causes in us a sense of having worth to God, which produces a permanent and profound serenity that cannot be obtained in any other way. Yes, we will be hurt when we put ourselves alone into God’s presence, but the hurt will be healed by mercy.


The second requirement for accepting mercy is that we give up our efforts to justify ourselves. When we try to justify ourselves, we do or say something that we think other people will esteem. Our aim is to compensate for the feeling of unacceptability that guilt produces in us. This is our way of remedying the guilt we feel, but it is antithetical to mercy’s remedy, which says there is nothing we can do or say that compensates for guilt. In mercy’s remedy, God does not hold our guilt against us; we become acceptable to him in spite of our guilt and not because of any efforts we make to be esteemed by others. We must abandon these efforts, then, if we are to accept mercy.

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In this abandonment, we experience severity. For we expend enormous amounts of energy in attempts to win the esteem of others, and now mercy tells us it is all wasted. We identify ourselves with our successes, but mercy wrenches that identity from us. Because much of our effort in life is aimed at obtaining justification for ourselves, we feel as if our lives fall apart when mercy undercuts those efforts. To be sure, mercy is the only sure foundation for justification; yet in coming to experience that foundation, we experience the crumbling of the old one. And that is shattering.

In order to understand what this second requirement for accepting mercy involves, we need to understand both the extent and strength of our efforts at self-justification. When we look at the real reasons for what we do, we find that at the bottom of nearly everything is the desire to be esteemed by others. We also find that this desire is exceedingly intense. We cling tenaciously to activities that we believe bring esteem. We put ourselves through pain to achieve the success that we know others admire. Our feelings of satisfaction with life are at their peak when we feel approved of by others.

Martin Luther wrote that “there is no greater pain than the gnawing pangs of conscience.” This explains why we put forth such strenuous efforts at self-justification. Self-justification covers the enormity of our guilt. It convinces us that the accusations of our conscience are mistaken. It soothes the sharp pain of being fully conscious of our real natures. It clothes our naked selves.

So intractable is this tendency that we find ways to justify ourselves in even the basest of activities. In Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, Maslova, a prostitute, feels no shame for her profession. On the contrary, she is pleased and almost proud of it, because she views herself as an important and necessary person. She has in her profession the power to satisfy men’s desires. They need her, and in this she finds her significance in life. Of Maslova’s self-justification, Tolstoy asks, “How could it be otherwise?” revealing the power of her drive to justify herself.

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Legitimate and praiseworthy activities, all the more so, supply such deceptive esteem. Our jobs, for example, are particularly strong suppliers of self-justification. No matter what kinds of jobs we have, we secure from them steady doses of esteem from others. This is especially true of professionals, who are acutely conscious that their jobs are highly regarded by the rest of society. For these people mercy comes hard, because they have thicker layers of self-justification to peel off.

Nothing escapes our use for obtaining self-justification. Social standing, possessions, clothes and hair styles, even friends, family, worthy character traits, or sacrificial activities can be used to bring us a feeling of value, to justify our existence to ourselves. We use such flattery of ourselves to compensate for guilt and to deceive ourselves into thinking that we do not need mercy.

Although the shell of self-justification and self-deception is thick, it is not so thick that we cannot break through it. There is one test that may effectively bring us to mercy: it is to remove the suspected sources of self-justification from our lives and see how we feel. If we were to give up our jobs, divest ourselves of our cherished possessions, renounce our social status, or wear rags in public, we would find out whether the foundation of our self-concept is one of these, or mercy. We would have the same illumination if we were to fail, for then we would discover whether it is success or mercy in which we find our identity. Success and mercy can exist side by side, but our tendency to use success as justification is so strong that it is good, perhaps even necessary, to fail periodically to make sure that success does not replace mercy.

Giving up our efforts to justify ourselves is as painful and difficult as eliminating self-deception from our lives. We have pursued self-justification so thoroughly and intensely that the transition from it to mercy’s justification fractures our deep-seated habits and conceptions of who we are. Tolstoy’s Maslova eventually saw all this. Though for years she used her vocation as a means to justify herself, she finally saw through her flattering scheme. However, she was not then ready to accept mercy. She saturated herself with vodka to block out the painful revelation that had come to her. Not until later could she face herself more squarely, and she wept over her ruined life.

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Our whole lives, from the most minute details to the grandest projects, are efforts to rectify the guilt we see in ourselves. Only when we realize the bankruptcy of these efforts are we ready to receive mercy.

The reception of mercy into our lives is immensely liberating. Unlike self-justification, which is precarious and unstable, mercy is certain and enduring. Because we feel this when we accept mercy, we no longer have anxiety about whether we are successful in our attempts to atone for guilt. We cease being preoccupied with the thought that maybe others do not esteem us. We are freed from the insatiable and irresistible impulse to have more and more esteem. Mercy gives us a rest from our apprehensive and uneasy striving to vindicate ourselves.

Breaking The Chains

The third requirement for accepting mercy is that we be willing to give up the activities and attitudes that need forgiving. We cannot say to God, “I am sorry for what I have done. Would you forgive me, and would you also let me keep doing the things I am asking you to forgive?” When mercy fills us, we are released from the desire to continue in our guilty ways.

This release, however, is seldom quick and easy, for our desires are like old friends. We feel comfortable with them, and when we have to part from them we feel uneasy. So when mercy requires us to develop new motivation and new delights, it is requiring us to let go of something dearly beloved to us.

Augustine was keenly aware of this severity. In his description of the inner turmoil he underwent in his struggle to obtain grace, he tells us that he “twisted and turned” in his chain until it might be completely broken. This chain is the law of sin within him, which is “force of habit, whereby the mind is dragged along and held fast.”

This conflict between habits and the acceptance of mercy is intensified by the pleasure habits give us. Augustine describes this conflict with stunning accuracy: “I was sure that it was better for me to give myself up to your love than to give in to my own desires. However, although the one way appealed to me and was gaining mastery, the other still afforded me pleasure and kept me victim.” We do not want to give up the pleasure that our habits bring us, so we resist mercy and say “later.”

Moreover, we are apprehensive about the newness that mercy produces. The old scenery, the lifelong habits, even the thoughts and desires to which we have become accustomed, all feel “right.” Though we are attracted to the joy of mercy, we cling to the familiar ways of acting and wanting, because they give us security.

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Here, again, Augustine pinpoints the conflict: “The nearer came that moment in time when I was to become something different, the greater terror did it strike into me.” He continues, “My lovers of old, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, held me back. They plucked at my fleshly garment, and they whispered softly: ‘Do you cast us off?’ and ‘From that moment we shall no more be with you forever and ever!’ ”

Although most of us do not analyze ourselves as deeply as Augustine did, we do have the same kinds of experiences in coming to accept mercy. Consider an example: criticizing people, whether openly or simply to ourselves. Doing so gives us the pleasure of thinking we are better than others. This incites us to continue criticizing whenever the opportunity presents itself. Habit soon ensnares us, and a critical attitude arises automatically when we observe someone else’s ineptness or failure. With time, this critical attitude comes to feel natural. We need it to feel secure. Because of its entrenchment, we resist admitting that we are guilty for having it. And even when we do admit guilt we resist asking for forgiveness because we see we would have to give up wanting to have the attitude. Though mercy triumphs in the end, and we exchange our critical attitude for acceptance and love, it is not without a struggle.

In this example and in Augustine’s analysis of his experience, we can discern the central feature of this third requirement. It is to be willing to give up our very selves. This involves a thoroughgoing selflessness that contrasts sharply, almost violently, with the ego-centeredness that infects us all the way through. I want to make it clear that this third requirement is not that we actually give up the activities that need forgiving, but that we be willing to. If mercy required that we actually give them up, it would not be mercy anymore. It would be conditional acceptance, based on our ability to perform what God asks of us.

Like each of the first two ways, this third way has a nonsevere correlate. When Augustine accepted mercy, God “emptied out an abyss of corruption” from the bottom of his heart. The essence of this corruption, he says, is to will what he himself willed instead of what God willed. In place of the old pleasures there was a new pleasure, and instead of fear there was joy at having the new: “How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose it was now joy to put away.” No longer was he bound by insatiable cravings: “Now was my mind free from the gnawing cares of favor-seeking, of striving for gain, of wallowing in the mire, and of scratching lust’s itchy sore.” The mercy that once had been harsh became engaging.

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Self-Analysis And Childlike Faith

It is apparent that in meeting mercy’s requirements we must engage in some fairly in-depth self-analysis. We must probe our inner lives, uncover hidden motives, and sort truth from deception. In doing so, we discover disturbing and sometimes devastating facts about ourselves. But is such introspection biblical?

The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is particularly instructive. When the Pharisee says, “I thank you, God, that I am not like that sinner over there,” he is identifying himself with his superior actions, and is covering his inner condition with a veneer of self-justification. If we are to avoid this veneer and embrace the tax collector’s faith, we must look inside ourselves.

There are numerous similar passages. Paul tells us that he counts all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7–9). To be able to say this, he had to engage in a thorough survey of his motives. The same is true of the account in Romans 7 of his conflicting impulses. Paul does things he doesn’t want to do, and he doesn’t do things he wants to do. Only Christ’s grace, he realizes, rescues him from this frustrating predicament. These and other biblical references point to the paradoxical conclusion: To possess a simple, joyful faith, we must unravel tangles of self-deception, self-justification, and suspicious desires. Because we are fallen, we cannot come to childlike faith spontaneously. There are too many obstacles within us.

But although we cannot come spontaneously to childlike faith, we can have it. Our struggles to make it more secure are a crucial part of Christian growth. In undergoing these struggles, we discover that acceptance of mercy plays a more central role in eternal life than just getting us started.

Clifford Williams is associate professor of philosophy at Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois.

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