Your ministry of mercy

art 07Christian teachings are not the possessions of Christians alone. They are universal, unfailing laws of life, like gravity is a law of nature, and they are expressed in many ways. We follow them to blessing and abundant life; we turn away from them to hardship and disaster. For example, take a common expression I’m sure you’ve heard, “What goes around comes around.”

Some people know it as the law of karma, a principle with roots in ancient India. The law of karma holds that our intent and actions influence our future. Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to future suffering. An ancient Hindu classic says, “As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps. The fruit is of the same quality as the action” (Mahabharata, xii.291.22).

Karma is not only a Hindu law; it’s a universal law of life, and so it’s a Judeo-Christian law, also. The Hebrew scriptures are full of examples. Whenever Israel adhered to God’s law, they prospered and lived in peace; when they strayed from God’s law and worshiped other gods, disaster soon followed (e.g., 2 Kings 17:5-8). A proverb came out of their experience: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hos. 8:7). And one of Job’s friends reminded him “that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same” (Job 4:8 NLT). What goes around comes around.

The same principle is in our Christian scriptures. In the second letter of John, the author wrote, “If you wander beyond the teaching of Christ, you will not have fellowship with God. But if you continue in the teaching of Christ, you will have fellowship with both the Father and the Son” (2 John 4:9 NLT). It’s not God who moves away from a relationship with me; it’s I who move away. The degree of closeness I experience in my relationship with God is dependent upon the closeness I choose to maintain with God, with the teaching and example of Christ, with the universal laws of life.

“Remember,” St. Paul wrote, “that you can’t ignore God and get away with it. You will always reap what you sow” (Gal. 8:7 NLT). Whether good or bad, what goes around comes around. It’s the law of karma, the way life works. The way to enjoy the blessings of life is not to grab hold of the blessings of life. The way to enjoy the blessings of life is to share the blessings of life with others, and the way to reap the blessings of life abundantly is to share them abundantly.

“The one who sows sparingly,” Paul wrote, “will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). Jesus even cited it as perhaps the fundamental law of life: “Do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary,” he said, “of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NLT). What you give is what you get: the law of karma.

So there’s nothing new in what Jesus said, except maybe the words he used, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for” (The Message).

That has crucial implications for us. If you want to feel cared for, Jesus says (and who doesn’t in a world like we’re living in today); if you want to feel valued; if you want to experience peace, which in our scriptures is understood as the result or effect of mercy: Don’t join a church or any other organization where your goal is to be cared for. Instead, join in a community where your primary goal and reason for existence is to care for others. Do for others what you would like them to do for you. What you send around will come around.

If you send a message that your first interest is your own happiness and well-being before that of others, the universe will tell you it’s more interested in itself than in you. If your message is that you will set aside your own interests in mercy for the welfare of others, the gifts of the universe will come streaming toward you.

All of this might sound like wishful, Pollyanna-esque, if-you-build-it-they-will-come thinking. But it turns our there’s good evidence to support it, and some of the evidence comes from our own backyard. First, it may be that mercy is our natural behavior, something that’s in our DNA. Researchers from the University of Buffalo found that some people may be born with certain genes that make us especially receptive to two hormones associated with feelings of love and generosity.

The researchers also found that genetics work in tandem with your upbringing and life experiences, and the combination of both can suggest how socially responsive and merciful you become. Either way, whether we’re wired for mercy or just brought up on it, our good nature is something that’s ingrained in us from an early age. A merciful, compassionate nature may not be something we have to acquire; it may simply be something original in who we are created to be, something we need to rediscover and liberate so we can be our true selves.

Second – and this is really to the point of the law of karma, that what goes around comes around – studies reported by ABC News indicate that if you give yourself to help improve the lives of others, you may reap health benefits that help you live longer and enjoy a higher quality of life. Being kind or merciful to others is a good way to elevate your own mood. And sometimes it doesn’t have to be anything more than offering a few kind words. It simply takes losing yourself in caring for someone else.

Third, it may actually pay to be kind and merciful. Dacher Keltner, a professor at Berkeley and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, has found that those who are compassionate and better in-tune with other people’s emotional needs may be more successful at work. He told ABC News that when you are compassionate and merciful, “People trust you more, they have better interactions with you, you even get paid better.”

Fourth, being merciful helps reduce your stress level. Being aggressive and looking out for your own interests may help you fight your way to the top or even appear to help you survive in a competitive environment. But another study found that if you finish second and take better care of others along the way, you may stay healthier and live longer by reducing harmful levels of stress in your life.

Finally, being merciful may just make you feel better. According to clinical psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, writing in a Psychology Today blog, “When we help others and do kind acts, it causes our brain to release endorphins, the chemicals that give us feelings of fervor and high spirits – similar to a ‘runner’s high.’ Doing something nice for someone also gives the brain a serotonin boost, the chemical that gives us that feeling of satisfaction and well-being.” Mercy to others translates to happiness for you.

If you want to get a quick experience of God’s blessings, here are two simple things to try this week. First, be patient with people’s quirks. Who are the people who have irritating quirks whom you need to be patient with this week? Jot down their initials so nobody knows who’s on the list but you. (You won’t have trouble coming up with a good list.) Then prepare yourself by listing their quirks, the ones you’ll need to be patient with. Spend some time in prayer about that list, and see what begins to happen.

Second, think of someone who is obviously hurting, someone you can help this week, and write that person’s name on your list, too. If you can’t think of someone, you’re not paying attention and are too wrapped up in yourself. What one, concrete, specific thing, however small, can you do to help that person feel better?

Try one more thing. Write down the name of someone who needs you to give them a second chance. This may be tough. It may require your forgiveness; it may require that you set yourself aside – which is what taking up your cross and following Jesus is all about; it may require more and deeper prayer than you’re used to. But it, too, is your ministry of mercy, and if you want to reap God’s blessings, you’ll do it.

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