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.
7 months 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

A Honduran asylum seeker released from detention holds her son while waiting at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, on May 19. (CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)
Federal officials are releasing thousands of asylum seekers in Texas. A Catholic Charities facility is taking up the challenge of providing temporary food and shelter after grueling journeys.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 24, 2019
Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott in ‘Aladdin.’ (CNS photo/Disney)
There was a moment during “Aladdin” when I thought, “This would have made a terrific animated movie.”
John AndersonMay 24, 2019
Responses to 10 of the principal objections that are commonly raised against the Catholic Church's teaching on the ordination of women.
Avery DullesMay 24, 2019
Part of embracing resurrection and new life is embracing it not only in Jesus, not only in yourself, but in those around you.
James Martin, S.J.May 24, 2019