Elder Bednar, upon his calling as an apostle, gave a blockbuster sermon concerning the tender mercies of God. The sermon itself is a great, powerful speech on the everlasting mercy of God. Most unfortunately, however, it spun off a new catch phrase that has gained a level of insipidness and inanity usually unseen within our church culture. Now, tender mercies, as my wife bitterly puts it, is attributing anything good that happened to you, from a timely green light to you finding ten bucks on the side of the street, to God. Everything is a tender mercy, and when everything is a tender mercy, the idea of mercy loses its potency. It also opens up a disturbing implication (Rebecca J discusses this in her blog post “Not Lucky, Blessed” if you want to read more of this).
The original scripture that spawned this cliche comes from the very first chapter in the Book of Mormon: “But Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). At the time, Nephi had fled to a promised land, but along the way, his family has seen horrible trials. They almost starve to death in the deserts of the Middle East. They barely make it to a new land alive after a large storm threatens to sink their ship. Nephi’s older brothers, after years of abuse and beatings, decide they don’t like their uppity younger brothers and determine to kill them. They enlist others to the point that the famous Nephite-Lamanite rivalry escalates into full blown wars (at the loss of thousands of lives). In the end, Nephi has a vision of his own people growing to a prosperous nation that ultimately disintegrates and destroys itself from within because of unrighteousness. How, exactly, is the Lord showing any sort of tender mercy?
Why does Nephi, the first author of the Book of Mormon, introduce his memoirs by speaking about mercy? And most interestingly, why does Moroni, the last author of the Book of Mormon, close his writings with a plea to ask God about the veracity of the Book of Mormon by speaking of mercy? He writes, “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts” (Moroni 10:3). It’s obvious at this point, that when a book opens saying, “I will tell you about mercy,” and ends with, “Now think about the mercy I have talked about in this book,” mercy is an important thing to the writers.
But this isn’t the warm fuzzies, feel-good tender mercies we hear about so much in church. One prophet dies by burning before he sees a single convert. Entire groups are conquered into slavery simply because God wanted to test them. There are terrible wars that result in so many dead that it chokes up the rivers. Judges are asassinated, governments crumble, sons go astray, daughters are kidnapped and raped, entire sects begin to persecute each other, people are thrown into jail for religious beliefs, others burn all of the women and children in town who believe in Christ simply to taunt the prophets. And in the end, despite a visitation by Jesus the Christ himself, Nephi’s vision comes true – an entire civilization crumbles into dust and are wiped out because they fail to heed the word of God.
Where is the mercy in this book? What mercy keeps Nephi, though seemingly abandoned in a strange, new world, full of hope for the mercy of God? What mercy keeps Moroni from falling into crippling despair as he wanders the hostile, new world alone, his entire family and friends slaughtered by the onslaught of merciless enemies? God certainly wasn’t making their proverbial stoplights turn green or helping them find any ten dollar bills on the sidewalk.
Jeffrey R. Holland succinctly sums up this mercy thusly:
“The principle character in the book is Jesus Christ…Christ is everything in this book.”
“We are supposed to be Christ-like, we are supposed to be charitable, we are supposed to demonstrate love, but he is saying that were it not for real charity, capital C, the one time in all the world that real charity was demonstrated, i.e., the pure love of Christ, if it were not for that, ‘we could not inherit the place which thou has prepared in the mansions of thy Father.’ This is the chairty that saves. This is the charity that faileth not. Ours does not always save and it does sometimes fail. As much as we try, we fall short. But one time, by one Person, the pure love of Christ was demonstrated. Real charity was given to this world. Christ loved us perfectly and it lasts forever. That’s why we can say that real charity never faileth. He never fails us. The message of the Book of Mormon is that Christ does not fail us. That’s what we’re trying to tell the world. That’s what we’re trying to say through this basic missionary text of this dispensation. Christ’s love is pure love. He is the only one who has ever really mastered it while the rest of us are still trying to do so. His salvation will not fail, His ordinances will not fail, His Church will not fail…Life has its share of fears and failures. Sometimes things fall short. Sometimes people fail us, economics fail us, business or government fail us. But one thing in time and eternity does not fail us, the pure love of the Lord Jesus Christ as manifested in His atoning sacrifice.”
Recently, a Facebook friend put up a quote for her status that basically said the adversary will have us focus on a lot of meaningless things rather than the few meaningful things that count. While the quote bothered me (the intent is usually to insinuate that what I like is important; what you like isn’t), I cannot deny it’s truthfulness. And I cannot deny the fact that our Church sometimes falls guilty of that. We have reduced a very powerful phrase – tender mercies – encapsulating the crowning achievement of God in redeeming his children from sin and sorrow, the demonstration of perfect charity, given freely and paid with a terrible price, so that God can shift the burden of responsibility of our sins from us to him to help us return back from miserable exile – to simple coincidence and happenstance that marginally improves our lives and helps us feel better. This is a terrible shame.