“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” —Madeleine L’Engle
Try a thought experiment. In your mind, sit yourself down to a story. Okay, now re-run in your mind all the parts where the wicked and perfidious villain merrily practices untold evils on the innocent and powerless. Now, instead of having the reprobate punished, just end the book. Go ahead, have the evildoer get off scot-free.
Wouldn’t you feel mad? Probably yes, because it would be wrong—it wouldn’t be human. Humanity demands fairness. But is fairness about only justice?
Here is my own tale. Once upon a time when I was poor and in great need of money, I had to travel to a far-off land to earn some. The job was to clear deadwood along the riverbank for an aristocrat of sorts. The worksite had no power, no telephone, and the closest rancher/neighbor was a good couple of miles away—the driveway alone is a quarter of a mile.
If you think this sounds sort of cool and masculine, you are wrong. It was not. (Though once in a while I did feel very manly as I lifted the roaring chainsaw above my head—muscles straining—to deliver the cutting blow to some long, withered tree limb that was blocking needed light to some tender new sprouting growth.)
The one conciliatory aspect of this job was my Mp3 player. The little electronic device and my earphones were nearly salvific. Power wasn’t a problem because I charged my Mp3 player and laptop off a car battery. And on my laptop was a veritable horde of audio-books. So there I was for a number of weeks with my only company being the audios and the mice that invariably invaded the fifth wheel in which I slept.
Despite not wanting the heavy and onerous safety gear this job suggested, I had been forced to wear the big bright orange headpiece, non-breathable Kevlar safety pants, and bulbous, awkward goggles. I wasn’t happy. And, in addition to the burning perspiration that quickly would run down every crevice and crack in my body, there were mosquitoes. You should know that when you are sweating copiously, the repellant doesn’t last long, mainly because it is streaming into your eyes.
It was during one such day of particular heat that I would vicariously learn of mercy.
There I was with all the above nastiness and one last audio-book on my Mp3 player. My tastes in stories are mostly simple: they should have magic. And this last story did; it even included Merlin. So the boiling heat, treacherous mosquitoes, and burning eyes were secondary to the story. As my chainsaw was swinging, the magic was blazing, and the world was okay. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t that my repellent was failing, or that the heat was stifling, or even that my water bottle had fallen out. This all would have been acceptable—if the story had not started to take a turn for the worse.
You see, in my story the hero was taking a beating—literally. Not only was he being rottenly mistreated by a particularly rude miscreant, he was employing nothing of his quite powerful magical abilities to defend himself, even after getting irreparably maimed. It was grueling to hear as my imagination recreated the grizzly scenes.
Being sticky, thirsty, and continually pestered by vampiric insects is not great for setting a mood.
And, after listening to the hero being unfairly abused, I was eagerly waiting for justice to be doled out. But the burst of powerful magic never came.
Where is the fairness? I thought as I struck out at whatever dead tree happened to stand in front of my roaring saw. (Yes, I was riotously wasting gas.) I started to despise the author for not doing the right thing: delivering fairness.
Honestly, I felt cheated. The wicked deserved to be punished. I finally became so angry, I mashed down the stop button on the Mp3 player.
Look now, if you will, with your imagination at the poor wretched thing down the hill that was me. Already my emotions were in danger of spilling over due to environmental frustrations, and then to add contempt to misery, the story I was mentally reliving had my beloved hero being treated unfairly with no balancing justice offered, like at all. My blood was past boiling. Eventually, beaten by mental tedium, I turned the Mp3 back on. And I seriously felt like a wretch for even letting the mind-numbing boredom and monotony override the injustice I was feeling. But what could I do? My mind demanded some form of escape, no matter how “immoral.”
So, at first angrily, my eyes still burning with repellant, I listened. And I listened some more. And then—have you ever watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon from the ’60s?—my heart began to grow three sizes that day. And it also grew much softer.
Then it broke entirely.
For as the narrative continued, the primary villain of the story—the one whom I wanted to suffer and scream whilst being blasted with lightning—made a total turnaround. He saw what he was. Then he begged forgiveness. And, as you might have guessed, the hero—being a true hero—accepted graciously. It was awesome. Fairness had been served. Mercy triumphed over justice. And the moment was utterly and blissfully glorious. Yet here is the interesting ingredient that made the moment priceless: two people shared in something because forgiveness was sought.
There is satisfaction in justice. And I am pretty sure I am not alone in feeling this. It’s human. Yet there is something far more satisfying than mere justice: mercy obtained when forgiveness is sought. Then justice melts away. What’s more, as the story progressed, this now-redeemed character came to be integral to the rescue of countless others later in the plot.
Shortly after knowing the whole story, I, sweaty, sore and thirsty, clicked the dead-switch to the chainsaw and stood quietly amid the trees on the hill.
I softly asked my heavenly Father to overlook my earlier nastiness and short-sightedness. I asked Him, who had so charitably acted toward me, to help me think more like a good author does: to look farther down a story plot; to divinely see the potential in humanity with eyes of mercy. And such a great mercy as to even search for potential magnanimity.
That day, I think, I became more like Jesus, and it was because of a story. Since then, I am learning to consider with longer-sighted vision—the kind Jesus has for us—the value of patient mercy.