Righteousness and Bliss

Righteousness and Bliss

Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Psalm 85:10)

In our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. . . . See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.

—From General Lowenhielm's toast in "Babette's Feast" by Isak Dineson

Photo: Skyler Fike

Words that are faithful and true, spoken out of a life that is generous and kind, have the power to transform our hearers. This I learned from an oboist named Aaron.  

My friend Holly introduced me to Aaron outside of The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville. I had escaped the federal bustle of Washington for a weekend at the home of my longtime school friend. A college town, Charlottesville is modest in style, but buzzes with all the artistry and intellectual verve of the academy.

Aaron is a master musician with crackling wit, laughing eyes, and honesty to make Lincoln seem a perjurer. Culturally Jewish, but secular in practice, he finds solace in the spirituality of the Far East rather than in a synagogue. Our discussion darted from commonplace to divine, forgetful of the initial pleasantries that make introductions so awkward. An hour passed.

“I am a different person than I was a year ago.”

“What do you mean?”

The story he told still burns on my heart.  

One evening, a little over a year ago, Aaron accidentally stumbled into Holly’s reading group, a Friday night collection of dusty Presbyterians discussing Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and Berry. Aaron didn’t know they were all Christians, or he said he might not have visited. To him, the Sunday people were associated with hypocrisy and unthinking dogmatism. Yet something compelled him to return. And return he did, week after week. Sometimes they said things he found to be insensitive or ignorant, but on the whole, he was astonished by their grace and charity.

Among the finest examples of that charity was Holly, Aaron later told me in a letter: “She demonstrates in her speech as well as her actions that it's possible to balance rigorous intellectual inquiry while maintaining a traditional morality guided by the Christian faith. She understands my positions as well as I do or better and can cite legal history encyclopedically alongside Scripture.”

Aaron no longer speaks ill of Christians because when he thinks of them, he no longer thinks of an abstract group of “Bible thumpers” but of Holly — her unswerving convictions wed to a heart of charity and compassion. Because of Holly and that little group of saints, he is a different person than he was even a year ago.  

Aaron’s intellectual honesty sharpened a reality already growing in my heart and mind: that transformation is not the result of a perfectly postured argument or a random act of kindness but the inexplicable and astonishing union of mercy and truth.

What Sin Had Set at Variance

When the Psalmist says, “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and bliss have kissed each other,” he implies that they had been separated. That separation is the work of the Fall, the great dis-integrator, which tears apart what God has made to be in union.  

And so, instead of bliss emanating from righteousness and vice versa, they wander around separately, and in their isolation become divisive and even monstrous. The Church especially struggles with these false dichotomies. Entire communities stand on only one leg or the other. Should we focus on strong teaching or social justice? Should we be doctrinally sound or seeker friendly? Should we preach the gospel with our words or with our lives?

Christians who exchange bliss for righteousness end up bartering away bits of orthodoxy for acceptance, or else abandon propositional truth entirely. Works of art with subtle messages and acts of social justice are more culturally acceptable. To be sure, these are both excellent means of communicating, but to retreat from righteousness is one-legged apologetics. “Preach the gospel. Use words if you must,” the bumper sticker dubiously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is an insult to the prophets and martyrs. William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa — none of the celebrated saints of justice work shied away from the spoken truth.  

On the other hand, Christians who focus on righteousness to the exclusion of bliss often use truth not to build people up but to beat people up. Perhaps that’s why Aaron was so shocked by the charity he received. Os Guinness put it well in a recent interview about his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: “Too often they did ‘the Lord’s work,’ in ‘the world’s way‘ — for example demonizing their enemies, when our Lord taught us radically to love our enemies. We are now paying for such sub-Christian tactics in the massive defection from the faith by the younger generation.”

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes to mind:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–2)

If we tell the truth but we do it to potshot or to posture or to one-up, then we are resounding gongs and clanging cymbals. Everything we have said, whether true or not, becomes null and void.

The internet, with its anonymity and abstraction, has created a special stage for resounding gongs and clanging symbols. One can address an issue remotely without the messiness of embodied human interaction. Dostoyevsky’s famous quotation from The Brothers Karamazov captures this perfectly: "I love mankind . . . but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular." Abstract humanity has no draining friendships, annoying relatives, or untidy neighbors. We are never responsible for, or adversely affected by, humanity in the abstract. Facebook statuses, sound bites, and shots across the bow ought not be confused with the real and costly love that underwrites transformation. Bliss without righteousness is vacant, but righteousness without bliss is cruel.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is perhaps the most beautiful example of mercy and truth in all of literature. What criminal justice expert in his right mind would have advised the Bishop to pardon Jean Valjean’s sin and give him all the silver? “My brother, you no longer belong to what is evil, but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” An act of grace, electrified with truth, brings about the eventual transformation of a man who seemed beyond the reach of God.

Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of mercy and truth meeting together. The great commentator Matthew Henry says of Psalm 85:10 in his Commentary on the Whole Bible:

In him who is both our salvation and our glory mercy and truth have met together . . . that is, the great affair of our salvation is so well contrived, so well concerted, that God may have mercy upon poor sinners, and be at peace with them, without any wrong to his truth and righteousness. He is true to the threatening, and just in his government, and yet pardons sinners and takes them into covenant with himself. Christ, as Mediator, brings heaven and earth together again, which sin had set at variance.

Jesus Christ reveals God the Father to us, and when we, in our words and deeds, draw mercy and truth together, we reveal Jesus Christ to those around us, rejoining “what sin had set at variance,” and bringing heaven to bear on earth.  

Where Do You Get That Living Water?

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” . . . The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? (John 4:7–11)

Photo: Skyler Fike

Only verses later, Jesus would call out her serial adultery, but not before He broke all cultural taboos to be near her, to dignify and humanize her by sharing a drink of water. Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss have kissed one another. Christ is as kind as He is true.

When we speak truth against the backdrop of mercy, it creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. How can it be that ideas I find intolerant and ignorant are embraced by a person so generous and charitable? That cognitive dissonance is the place where transformation occurs.

I think of a certain family I know who recently extended the ultimate act of hospitality to a baby girl from an unplanned pregnancy, welcoming her into their family. I think of my father, painstakingly repairing the mangled cleft lip of a poor Guatemalan child while at the same time sharing the gospel with his scrub nurse. And of course, I think of Holly and her Friday night group. They are all living a true and merciful faith that I am only beginning to learn.  

Incarnating Righteousness and Bliss

So what we can do? How can mercy and truth meet together in our lives?

1. We can start from a place of humility. We too once had no hope and were without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). The ground is level at the foot of the cross. In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller says that our justice flows out of our justification. The Father has set us free through his Son Jesus Christ, and as an outpouring of gratitude, we can set others free as well.

2. We can remember that we are all made in the image of God. The doctrine of Imago Dei always reminds me of the incredulity of Mr. Tumnus upon meeting Lucy at the lamp post: “Are you a daughter of Eve?” The creatures of Narnia marveled at “imageness” in a way that is all but lost among Christians. We must respect humanity’s reflection of the triune God, even though the Fall has taken its toll upon the imprint. C.S. Lewis says it beautifully in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

3. We can tame our tongues. James draws on the importance of Imago Dei in his warning about venomous speech: “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:8–9). This is especially challenging in the age of social media. Before I blog or tweet or post something on Facebook, I must ask myself: do I understand the person or group of people I am addressing? Or am I being lazy and dishonest and trafficking in abstractions? Do I want to see others reconciled to God or merely put in their place? Will my argument edify or degrade?

4. We can choose incarnation over abstraction. If we want to engage an issue, then we must know a person on the other side of it. A person in flesh, not just in pixels. It is difficult to slander or be slandered when we’re standing in front of someone. This is why gossip only happens behind closed doors. Physical presence is a great civilizer. The issue is no longer an abstract idea. It is a man or a woman with a story, with pain, dreams, regrets, a mortgage, mouths to feed.

5. How can we better acknowledge incarnation than by breaking bread together? There’s a reason that the feast recurs so often throughout redemptive history: the Passover, the Last Supper, the sacrament of Communion, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The feast is so powerful that the ultimate act of Church discipline is to bar an apostate from the Lord’s Table. Shared meals acknowledge our shared humanity, our shared contingency, our shared need for daily bread. What if, instead of a devastating argument, we extended an invitation to dinner in our home? How would that act of hospitality change the heart of our hearers?

6. We can act with courage. Mercy bled dry of truth becomes the counterfeit virtue of “niceness.” We need to give others the dignity of trusting them with the truth, frightening as the exchange may be. Authenticity is remarkably winsome. If we do find our words and deeds met with malice, we can remember the words of Christ: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Even the perfect union of mercy and truth will not persuade everyone.

7. We can pray. What we pray shapes what we believe, and what we believe shapes how we live. So as we petition our Father in heaven, we not only intercede for those who oppose us, we become more like his Son Jesus Christ, in whom mercy and truth were never separated for a second.

A Collect for Mercy and Truth

Heavenly Father, grant that mercy and truth, righteousness and bliss, would so meet in our words and deeds that we would reveal to the world around us with increasing clarity your incarnate Son Jesus Christ, who has made peace by the blood of the cross to reconcile all things unto Himself. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Recommended reading:

“Babette’s Feast,” Isak Dineson

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

Living Speech: Resisting the Empire of Force, James Boyd White

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Timothy Keller

Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century, David Aikman

Generative Fragments: Four Collaborative Movements on QU4RTETS

The Required Burning: Notes from a Musical Mid-Life Crisis