When Is Too Much Mercy Bad?

Updated: May 4

Many of us have a spiritual gift in mercy. Or so it appears.

We are kind, forgiving, generous, loyal, flexible, and humble. We always assume that it is we who are at fault. We give second, third, one hundred chances. We forgive and forgive and forgive, hoping that one day the other person will “see the light.” We take abuse and call it patience. We do not call others out on bad behavior. We have a terrible time setting boundaries and standing up for ourselves.

But is this behavior truly mercy? Or is it self-sacrifice? And is self-sacrifice always good?

Jesus said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). We are taught to sacrifice for others, that this is a virtue. But Jesus clearly does not want us to constantly put others’ needs ahead of our own.

Psychologically speaking, it is so easy to fall into a controller-controllee relationship where we, the controllees, give up getting our needs met so that the other person, the controller, can get his needs met. But a controller is operating in a self-righteous way where she never admits wrong, he never humbles himself, and she always looks to change her environment and other people to suit her. This person is super happy when you conform to his world as he has defined it! You are allowing her to stay comfortably in her false self, getting her false self needs met, while your real self needs for connection and power and joy are eternally delayed.

In the past, I have defined mercy as forgiveness in real time. This means that we do not expect to ever receive love back. Here, I will be more specific.

Mercy is the passive energy of the Truth facet of love. Those of us who are good at giving to others like to forget that wisdom is the active energy of this facet. The two must work together in order to be a virtue. Part of wisdom is seeing others for who they really are. What are they really up to? What are they lying to themselves (and others) about? What do they believe that is false? What is their false (idealized) self? What are the tactics that they are employing to maintain that false self? These are all aspects of others that we can see truthfully.

There is power in knowing what others are up to. The other half of Truth is mercy.

Wisdom is knowing what a person is up to. Mercy is recognizing that it is understandable why they are that way.

Mercy can see how the other person got that way, how he was raised, how she has suffered. Mercy is born out of self-awareness. If we see our own failings and false beliefs, then we know where they came from. We know the suffering that we experienced as a child. We know why we have certain fears. We know how we came to believe lies. We know when we began to shut down our emotions. If we can see these building blocks of non-love in ourselves, we can see them in others.

Is it bad for the other person to hurt us? To cause suffering? To be demanding, to take without giving? Yes. It is still bad. But we can also understand why they do so.

If mercy is seeing others in totality, including their past, then what is grace?

Grace is giving a person every chance that you can to turn around. Grace is not unlimited.

We give others chances to set things right before setting a boundary. How many chances? Not infinite.

Real love is not a doormat.

I don’t know how many chances to give. Perhaps until our suffering is too great. If we suffer indefinitely, we allow the perpetrator to abuse us for the sake of maintaining his false self. This is self-sacrifice and it enables the other person to remain operating in non-love without consequences. It is not up to us to mete out justice. But we can most certainly warn others that a boundary, to stop our own suffering, may need to be set:

  • Don’t do this. It hurts me.

  • My suffering is nearing its limit.

  • You are causing me negative emotions.

  • I do not know if I can tolerate this much longer.

  • When you do …, I feel angry/afraid/sad.

This is what God did with Israel. Many times. The Old Testament is filled with God giving his people many warnings, many chances, to change their wicked ways and turn back to Him. These warnings and chances are grace.

Sometimes we see the other person so clearly that we can predict the future. We can predict what a person will choose, how the situation will go.

  • “They will never stop hurting me.”

  • “Their demands of me will only increase.”

  • “They will make it impossible to continue this relationship.”

But to act on what will happen is not correct. For their sake, we must give them fair chances and allow their choices to play out. If we act prematurely, if we set a boundary based on what we think they will do, in their eyes, that boundary will not be justified.

After we enact a boundary, the other person can always repent, or change direction. This repentance should invoke our mercy once again. God set a boundary when he divorced Israel (Jeremiah 3:8). He said, “Enough!” But this “divorce” was not a rejection for all time, with no possibility of restoration. Upon an apology, if they “acknowledge [their] iniquity” (Jeremiah 3:13), God would show Israel mercy and restore the relationship (Jeremiah 3:14-15

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It took me three years to realize that I am a fallen creature. I have been struggling and groping my way back to the Light. Here are a few things that I have learned along the way....

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