Why is it so hard for us to show mercy?

“Healing of the Man Born Blind,” El Greco, 1567 (Wikipedia)“Healing of the Man Born Blind,” El Greco, 1567 (Wikipedia)

In “Paradise Lost,” when confronted with his sin of disobedience, Adam tries to shift the blame back onto God, asking his Creator:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (X, 743-45)

Theologically, Adam’s argument fails because sin does not issue from something evil that God created. It comes out of the freedom God gave us. God is goodness itself. God made us good; God gave us every blessing of earth, including the companionship of human love; and, finally, God also gave us—alone among earthly creatures—the ability to accept or to reject goodness itself.


At the very beginning of the industrial revolution, when our Enlightenment confidence in science was still in full flower, the novelist Mary Shelley created a fictional scientist who declared:

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

Shelley’s novel remains a classic, though the name of her creator scientist and his woeful creation are known far beyond its pages: Frankenstein.

God also gave us—alone among earthly creatures—the ability to accept or to reject goodness itself.

For the most part, movie adaptations lack the moral sharpness of Shelley’s story. For example, in the novel, here is the monstrous creature, making his own case for mercy.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

As Shelley sets up her story, the monster chooses murderous evil, but this could have been avoided if his creator had listened to his plea of utter loneliness and shown his own creature some measure of mercy.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

Sadly, fear of his own creation overwhelms Victor Frankenstein. Yielding to it, he cannot find the strength, cannot receive the grace, to show mercy, to draw his own creature into a circle of life. And so the monster promises, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

Mercy flows from the freedom and the strength that God’s truth bestows.

“Jesus, son of David, have pity on me” (Mk 10:47). Bartimaeus, the blind man sitting at the side of the road, cannot know if he is close enough to be heard, over the crowd, by Jesus. The Lord does hear, and he asks that the blind man to be brought to him.

“What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way (Mk 10:51-52).

Because he is free from sin, Jesus lives within the true freedom with which God first endowed us. He is free from the false terrors that sin conjures in our imaginations. And being free, he can show mercy. In doing so, he restores an outcast to human community, to a circle of human loves.

Let us pray for the grace to know that we are loved, that we are forgiven, that we have been shown a great mercy.

In revealing who the Lord Jesus is, the Gospel also illumines our own lives, lived with a sorrow wrought by sin. Why do we find it so hard to show mercy? Why do we talk endlessly about our rights and what is owed to us? Why do we insist that we must look after our own interests first, national and personal? Why is mercy absent even in mind, in our silent thoughts of others? Why are we judgmental and cruel rather than patient and accepting?

Because we are not free. Because we live under the tyranny of terror that sin uses to enslave us. We think that mercy will weaken us, destroy our position of strength.

If a story, like Shelley’s Frankenstein, tells the truth about us and about God, it reveals the veracity of the Gospel. In the end, both Victor Frankenstein and his monster go down into death, confessing their inability to show mercy. The sinful, the weak and the fearful cannot show mercy, which, as the life of our Lord reveals, is the very meaning of God. Mercy flows from the freedom and the strength that God’s truth bestows.

Early in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein confesses, “We are fashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves—such a friend ought to be—do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.” We are fashioned but still only half made up. God created us, but God left us radically incomplete. To complete ourselves, to make us capable of loving others, we must open ourselves to God.

Let us pray, then, for the grace to know that we are loved, that we are forgiven, that we have been shown a great mercy. Then in the strength and truth that comes from the grace of the Gospel, we will begin to live as Jesus lived. We will be God’s mercy in the flesh.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9 Hebrews 5:1-6 Mark 10:46-52

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
3 months 3 weeks ago

It has baffled me for some time that we believe more easily in the mind-blowing doctrine of the Resurrection than in the forgiveness of sins. As Christians we consciously and joyfully embrace the ridiculous idea that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead but our rejection of forgiveness and mercy is mostly unconscious until our cherished guilts and grudges rise up to bite us.


The latest from america

Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus, today made public the four main reference points that are to guide the life and work of the Jesuits over the next 10 years.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 19, 2019
The ruins of the church where the constitution of Simón Bolívar’s “Gran Colombia” was signed. Photo by Antonio De Loera-Brust
Over one million Venezuelans have arrived in Colombia as of May 2018. Colombia is not a rich country, and helping to bear the burden of receiving thousands of Venezuelan refugees every day is the Catholic Church.
Antonio De Loera-BrustFebruary 18, 2019
Jesuit Father Fernando Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet and Queen Sofia Prize winner, speaks during a celebration for his 90th birthday at the National Theatre Ruben Dario in Managua, Nicaragua, in January 2015. (CNS photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)
St. John Paul II had suspended Father Cardenal and several other priests from active ministry in 1985 for joining the Marxist-influenced Sandinista government. Father Cardenal resigned from the Sandinista Front in 1994.
The Vatican will live-stream all the keynote speeches and the interventions of Pope Francis at the upcoming summit on the protection of minors.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 18, 2019