In the Square of Saint Petersburg, a young Fyodor Dostoevsky stood shivering in the snow alongside fellow convicts, arrested for belonging to a literary circle considered treasonous.
A priest carrying a cross led the convicts in a procession, arranging them in lines while their sentence was read—death by firing squad. But at the last second, a horseman arrived with a prearranged message from the tsar: Instead of execution, Nicholas “mercifully” commuted their sentences to hard labor.
While boarding the convict train to the work camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky was given a copy of the only book he was permitted to read in prison: the New Testament. Over the next four years of his incarceration, he’d consider the injustices of 19th-century Russia in light of Christ’s mercy.
Dostoevsky sought to understand how mercy restores human hearts—indeed, all of creation—into the righteous image of God. He wrote, “There are souls that in their narrowness blame the whole world. But overwhelm such a soul with mercy, give it love, and it will curse what it has done, for there are so many germs of good in it. The soul will expand and behold how merciful God is, and how beautiful and just people are.”
The need for mercy is just as relevant today—but it can be difficult to offer in a world worthy of judgment.
When our eyes are opened to God’s kingdom, we recognize injustices in the world that didn’t occur to us before. Hungering for the right ordering of life, we feel irritated by the fallen condition of humanity. We get unsettled, maybe indignant, or perhaps infuriated by the forms of wickedness and oppression we see around us.
As a result, anger can often be the besetting sin of those who crave justice. “Hot indignation seizes me,” says the psalmist, “because of the wicked, who forsake your law” (Ps. 119:53, ESV throughout).
This indignation arises from a legitimate source. The more we recognize the true, the good, and the beautiful—and the more we hunger for them—the more inclined we are to get mad at the false, the bad, and the ugly. The more we walk in the light, the more naturally disturbed we become by moral darkness (Titus 1:15; 1 Pet. 4:1–6).
This is certainly and rightly true of anger directed at evil—at the tyrant who attacks innocent people, the scam artists who prey on the elderly, or the trusted authority figures who abuse children. These examples of “righteous anger” reflect the heart of God, holy outrage that refuses to allow evil to prevail. And yet our anger will always be imperfect because it can never capture the fullness of God’s purity. Indeed, as the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19).
Bitter anger and opposition to the darkness—what some today might call the outrage of cancel culture—must never become our normal mode of operation as Christians. Instead, God ultimately calls us to pursue redemption, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). “The wisdom from above,” after all, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
This was precisely the message of Dostoevsky’s classic work The Brothers Karamazov, wherein the main character Ivan represents the spiteful punishment and retribution of the world’s “justice”—which stands in implacable opposition to Christ’s gospel of mercy. In Dostoevsky’s own words, such a spirit of vengeance “glaringly contrasts with Christ’s gospel of all-reconciling and all-forgiving love and the hope of infinite mercy for the sinner who repents.” For the Russian novelist, this is what distinguishes the City of God from the City of Man: the impartation of divine mercy.
Consider also the character Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the police inspector whose narrow interpretation of justice became weaponized. Driven by a pharisaical commitment to the letter of the law, he couldn’t overlook the slightest infraction. Javert failed to understand that the law is always a means toward a greater end—that is, toward redemption—not an end unto itself.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn strikes this note when he writes, “A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.” Even worse, such a society deprives itself of its most profound need for mercy.
In her book The Beatitudes through the Ages, Rebekah Eklund makes this connection from the teaching of Ambrose of Milan (339–397), who promoted mercy as the natural and necessary outflow of justice. Quoting from Psalm 111:9, he writes that “he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” Likewise, Augustine (354–430) saw the two in an organic relationship: “The way you treat your beggar [at your door] is the way God treats his.”
God is full of mercy, and he bestows this fullness on his children. It is no accident that when the Lord of glory appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai and revealed his divine character, he chose to say of himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).
It’s stunning. Of all the qualities God might have stressed—his holiness, sovereignty, or almighty power—he chose to highlight his tender heart of compassion. As mercy is of central importance to God, so it must be for us. “Be merciful,” Jesus says, “even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
We are merciful not because God started the process and then leaves us to finish it by the power of our wills. Rather, each step of the way, God melts our self-reliance and feeds our faith until we desire him above all. It is a project of mercy in which Christ continually says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The Lord leads us with “cords of kindness” and with “the bands of love” (Hos. 11:4).
And when we truly experience God’s mercy, we are driven to share it with others.
I once asked my friend Cecilia Horn, a godly woman and earnest evangelist, how she cultivates an enthusiasm for sharing the good news. I’ll never forget her response: “For many years, I was lost and without hope, like a prisoner living in a dark cave. Then, one day, God called me out from the shadows into the brightness of the noonday sun. At once, I looked heavenward and started blinking, trying to get perspective on the wonder of God’s mercy. I continue to blink in grateful amazement that deepens my faith and compels me to share the good news with others.”
Remembering our former days of loneliness and shame—when we were once alienated from Christ and strangers to his divine promises, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12)—dilates the eyes of our hearts and cultivates a deeper appreciation for the gift of mercy.
With the global church we cry, Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy!” This is the starting point and foundation of our calling—for before we can show mercy to others, we must encounter it for ourselves.
Adapted from chapter 5, “The Face of Mercy,” from The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes, by Chris Castaldo from Crossway.
Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois.