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The Psychological Dimension of Mercy

(The following piece is a talk I gave at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Peoria Heights, IL. Pope Francis has announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy. This was the first presentation given in a Lenten series dedicated to that very theme. Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.)            




I’d like to begin this evening by doing something a little different. I want to make a public confession.

Here it is: I did not want to give this talk. I really didn’t.

The reason is because I knew it would be personally challenging, revealing, and, worst of all, shaming.

I say this because, like many of you, I have experienced some very damaging hurts in my life. But, perhaps in distinction to your courage and humility, I’m not proud of the way I’ve handled some of my hurts.

For example, my response too often has been to nurse those hurts, to fantasize about ways of getting revenge, to re-create methods in my mind of harming those who have harmed me, to put them in their place in a way that will make me feel triumphant. In a word, to experience an exultant sense of “gotcha.”

As you can readily see, I am guilty of not establishing “mercy” as my default mode.

This is precisely why Pope Francis’ Year dedicated to this great grace called “mercy” could not possibly have been any more on target for me. My only comfort is knowing that after spending some 20 years sitting in a confessional, and almost 30 sitting in a counselor’s chair, I don’t think I’m entirely alone in feeling the way I have.

And so, with that tiny bit of consolation, I am going to dare to be so presumptuous as to step out into the deep and attempt a presentation on a topic that is rich beyond imagining in terms of our efforts to understand the depth of God’s incomparable love for us, as well as God’s unceasing efforts to introduce each one of us to THE central message found in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth: mercy – along with its cousins, compassion and forgiveness – even 70 X 7 forgiveness.

I call these latter two virtues “cousins” because, though strongly urged by Jesus and the gospels, they can be a bit more limited than the great gift of mercy.

For example, compassion is a word taken from the joining together of two Latin words “com” and “passio.” Taken together they literally mean to “feel with,” to enter into the deepest part of another person’s experience and to stand with them in that situation. Needless to say, compassion is a beautiful virtue. But, if it means remaining only an experience of feeling and is not joined with action, then it is somewhat limited.

The same is true in terms of our experience of forgiveness. Often, we view forgiveness as a reward a person is given but only after they have demonstrated adequate remorse.

Mercy, in my opinion, is a step above both of these two virtues. I say this because mercy is a pure, unadulterated gift – a gift that is undeserved, unmerited, unwarranted, and unexpected. The word we often use to describe it is: grace.

Having made this distinction, I’m now going to try to approach this daunting task from the perspective of a psychologist, a mental health professional, not that of a theologian. However, at times it will be very difficult to separate the two because they are so intimately intertwined. And that’s because theology/spirituality is essentially about the deepest part of human beings, their souls, and about how human nature and the nature of God can become increasingly enmeshed.

Let me begin by opening the Gospels of Jesus Christ as written by communities of people some 2000 years ago – communities that had become transformed and revolutionized by his teaching, his miraculous healings, his understanding of the core needs of human beings, his full embrace of the whole spectrum of human suffering, and finally his victorious triumph that we call Easter.  

When we do open the Gospels, we discover a veritable cornucopia of stories dedicated to the one all-encompassing theme of mercy.

The gospel of Luke alone, for example, contains one story after the other that highlights this single theme of mercy: beginning with the unforgettable infancy story in which Mary triumphantly cries out “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord … His mercy is from age to age to those who honor him;” … and from there we move on to Jesus’ merciful cures of the demoniac, and the paralytic, and the centurion’s slave, and host of others … and then we go from there to the all-time classic the Good Samaritan story … and then on to the feeding of the thousands who were hungry …. The list is practically endless.

But here’s the thing: The idea of a God who will invite the sinner back is not new. The idea of a God who will even welcome the sinner back is not new.

What is brand new, what has never been heard before, is a God who will leave the 99 sheep and seek out the one who is lost. What is brand new is a God, who, like the woman in the gospel story, will stop everything to find the one coin that is lost. What is radically new, in other words, is a God who will go in search, who will actively seek out the sinner. This is a God who one poet describes as being “the hound of heaven.”

Or, to put it in story form, what is brand new is a God pictured most famously in a story that some have said sums up the entirety of the New Testament, the Prodigal Son story. This is a classic that contains the brilliant depiction of the kind of God Jesus reveals to us in the metaphor of the father who paces back and forth, the father that never stops waiting, the father that is always on the lookout, the father who the minute he sees his son way off in the distance, drops everything, rushes out to meet him, throws his arms around him, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, and declares a feast because “My son who was dead has come back to life; he was lost and now he’s found.”

THAT kind of God is brand new! Never before heard of. Until Jesus reveals him.

What we see described here is mercy – along with its cousins: compassion and forgiveness.

But there’s another part to this story of the prodigal son that we often forget about. The part played by the elder son. The good guy.

Maybe the reason we forget about it is that it represents the heart of people like me … and maybe you. People who feel we deserve the banquet. We deserve the feast.

After all, we’re the faithful ones. We’re the righteous ones. We go to church every Sunday. We say our prayers. We’ve made the nine First Fridays – hundreds of times! We’ve read Scripture and donated to the St. Vincent de Paul program and done all the “right” things … and this guy that’s lived a life of feeding off the government and failed at taking care of his kids and gone to prison and all that … he gets a party? Really?

It’s not fair. It’s not rational. It makes no practical sense.

Listen to how the elder son puts it, and see if you can’t hear yourself in their somewhere. I know I can:

“Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”

Can’t you hear us saying something similar to that? Can’t you hear us whining: “It isn’t fair. You owe this to me.”

But listen now to how tender and heartfelt the father’s response is – the father that represents Abba, the father of Jesus and of each one of us: “My son, you are here with me always (He’s saying this to each of us!!); everything I have is yours (think of that!: words we should meditate on every day!). But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and now he’s been found.”

In other words, it’s a situation that goes way beyond mere justice, way beyond what’s merely “fair” and “right.” It’s about so much more. It’s about pure generosity. It’s about utter gift. It’s about grace. It’s about mercy – something totally underserved, unearned, unmerited, and unexpected.

THIS is what is so unique about the God that Jesus reveals to us.


Allow me now to descend to a radically lesser level. I’d like to share with you an experience of mercy that I had when I was a 16-year-old high school kid. Now we all know how self-focused we were at age 16. Here’s an example:

A high school dance was coming up. I wanted to ask a girl named Dorothy out, but I wasn’t too sure she’d accept my invitation. But, miracle of miracles, she did!

Now, you have to understand that I didn’t have a lot going for me. I stood six-foot-tall and weighed about 110 lbs. – soaking wet. I mean I was so skinny that if I turned sideways, I disappeared. At any rate, I didn’t have a lot to offer so I was racking my brain trying to come up with something that would really impress Dorothy.

It finally came to me: I needed a “wow” car so that when I drove up to her house to pick her up, she would be utterly impressed. (Now, remember: I’m 16!) The problem was: my Dad did not own such a car. His car was a 1950 Chevy coupe, a two-door jalopy that had stuffing coming out of the seats, and not a single thing to impress anyone. This is the same car, in fact, that all 10 of us kids were transported in, sometimes all at the same time! It was somewhat reminiscent of the classic clown car you’d see at the circus with an endless number of people exiting!

But, again, miracle of miracles, my uncle had just purchased a brand new Olds 88 with their “rocket” engine. And, he said I could use it for this dance!! I can’t adequately describe my joy. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

Now, of course, I never gave any thought to how all this would affect my Dad. I don’t remember thinking for a moment how this would impact him. It was all about me!

The big night comes. I pick Dorothy up in this beautiful new car. She is immediately impressed. After the dance I demonstrate to her just how powerful this car is and how much fun it is to drive. She is even more impressed.

But I’m quite certain what impressed her the most that night was the fact that I got picked up for speeding in that beautiful Olds 88 with the “rocket” engine!

After dealing with the policeman, I then knew I was going to have to deal with someone else: my Dad. Sure enough, when I got home, he was sitting in the front room reading. I can still remember what followed to this day – he spoke the first words: “So, how’d it go? Did you have a good time?” I sheepishly said nothing, just handed him the ticket. “What’s this?” he said. Then he read it.

In the meantime, I was close to being dumbstruck with fear. I was certain I was going to get a lecture that would include words like: “My car wasn’t good enough, was it? No you just had to get a car you could show off in ….” And on and on like that.

Instead, my Dad got up from his chair, threw his arms around me, and said: “I’m so sorry this happened. I know how much you were looking forward to this evening.”

Mercy! Unwarranted, unmerited, undeserved, and certainly unexpected.

A postscript to this story: I never heard from Dorothy again! So much for “impressing” her.   


Maybe even more to the point of this whole discussion of mercy, though, is another gospel story. This one is found in the gospel of John.

I’ll never forget the first time I remember really hearing it. I was probably in the eighth grade. My parents took me and a couple of my siblings to a neighbor’s house every Tuesday night to watch Bishop Sheen. We did not own a TV at that time.

The one story I remember to this day, though, is the one about the woman caught in adultery. Now, admittedly, being an eighth grade boy, the topic of a woman caught in adultery was somewhat interesting to me. It had my attention. But Bishop Sheen made it even more appealing.

You all remember the situation: The Jewish Law – the Law of Moses – at that time was as clear as anything could be: a woman caught in adultery must be stoned to death.

So here she is: scared out of her mind; terrified; thoroughly shamed; feeling utterly hopeless and desolate. She knew what the punishment would be. She knew she was on death’s row.

The men who had caught her bring her out in the middle of everyone, face to face with Jesus. And then they ask Jesus this question:

“What should we do with this woman? You talk to us of goodness, but Moses told us that we must kill her!”

So, the test is on. The Mosaic Law vs. Mercy.

Jesus was caught in a real bind. Or so it would seem.

If Jesus said to them: “Go ahead with the stoning,” the men could then have turned to the people and said: “See, you claim your master is so good, even God-like, but look what he has done to this poor woman!”

If instead Jesus had said: “No, the poor woman, we need to forgive her,” they could then accuse Jesus of “not enforcing the law of Moses.”

A terrible conundrum. So, what does Jesus say to all of this?

Jesus doesn’t say anything at first. He’s completely silent. What he does instead, according to the Gospel, is “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.”

Here’s where Bishop Sheen becomes very dramatic. And this is what I remember so well:

Bishop Sheen suggested that what Jesus was doing was writing in the sand the grave sins of each of the accusers: Theft. Lust. Greed.

The men now are getting nervous. Jesus is putting the focus on them instead of on the adulterous woman.

So, to distract him and get the focus back on the woman, they begin to badger him about what to do with this woman. This is when Jesus speaks the famous line that has survived through the centuries: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

The Bible then tells us: “Again Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.”

Gluttony. Rage. Pride. More lust.

“And in response they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”

What Jesus did in effect was sheer genius. He did not betray the Law of Moses. He honored it. But, at the same time, he embraced Mercy – an unwarranted, undeserved, unmerited gift.

Of course, this great story is not just about a woman 2000 years ago. It’s about you and me right now. Where do we stand? Are we with the accusers? After all, it was the law; it’s what you get for sinning like that.

Or, are we with the Gospel of Mercy? Are we able to honor justice, and at the same time remember: REMEMBER our own faults, our own sins, our own shameful acts, all of which Jesus could write in front of each one of us right now.

Or, again, would we rather relish that powerful feeling of “gotcha”? Because we all know just how powerful that feeling is.

Here’s what Pope Francis says about Mercy: In the title of one of the beautiful books written about him, he tells us “The Name of God Is Mercy.” He goes on to say: “… it is God’s identity card. He does not want anyone to be lost. He waits. Always. And it is never too late. He’s a father waiting at the doorway, who sees us when we are still far off, who is moved, and who comes running toward us, embraces us, and kisses us tenderly.”

Notice something. Notice that, just like Luke in his famous Gospel story, the Pope also uses the example of a father. You are parents and grandparents. You probably understand better than anyone the difference between what is objectively just and right and proper, and Mercy. My guess is that mercy prevailed much more frequently than mere justice in your home. Why? Because you are in love. And that changes everything.

One of the saints – and unfortunately I can’t remember which one now – one of the saints reportedly had a mystical conversation with God. And according to this saint, the conversation went like this:

Saint: “God why … why do you love me … why do you love any of us?”

God: “You know, I really don’t know why. But then love is an unreasonable thing.”

God is Love, John’s gospel tells us. And because God has fallen in love with us, crazy in love, so in love “He sent his only son …”, God really can’t help himself – any more than you can with your children and your grandchildren. You can’t help yourself either, can you?

You’re in love. And that’s what people in love do. They don’t just reluctantly forgive (ok, maybe sometimes!). More often than not, you shower with mercy – just like my Dad did!


So, now let’s go to the psychological level.

From a purely human, psychological dimension, what is this thing called “mercy?” How do we source it? How do we make it more and more the story of our life? How do we get it to triumph over meanness and vengeance and name calling and getting even?

It’s kind of interesting and certainly regrettable that even though mercy and forgiveness has been taught and practiced for thousands of years by religions and philosophies, the scientific study of it has been quite recent.

So, allow me to pass on just a few insights from the world of scientific study concerning the issue of mercy.

Scientists have first of all addressed this question: Why are people so slow to extend mercy, to forgive?

Everyone surely knows, for example, that hanging on to a deep hurt, holding on to revenge is a major cause of mental health realities such as: depression (sadness that comes from feeling belittled or unloved), anxiety (fear that I’m not lovable, not worth that much), huge stress, loss of sleep, and the inability to focus on the here and now because we’re so busy looking backward.

We all know that what we’re really doing in the case of revenge is handing enormous power over to another person – in effect giving them the keys to the bus of our life and allowing them to sit in the driver’s seat.

So, why, in the light of all this, do we continue to hang on to our desire to get even, to refuse to let go and forgive? Why do we insist on devising strategies of revenge in our hearts? Why do we not allow mercy and forgiveness to drive the bus of our lives instead?

Scientists have come up with at least two reasons for devising strategies for seeking revenge:  

  1. There are so many payoffs:
  1. The payoff of being “right”
  2. The payoff of the “rush” we get when plotting revenge
  3. The payoff from the deep satisfaction of getting even and inflicting pain
  4. The payoff of not having to take into account the possibility of the contribution we may have made to the situation
  5. The payoff of a passive-aggressive approach to vengeance: “I just won’t speak to you.” The power of that. And the cowardice of it.
  1. The reality that mercy does not guarantee reconciliation. It can always change us, but it can’t assure change in another. I’ve had several fathers, for example, who have actively tried to mimic the prodigal son story, particularly in the case of the presence of addiction. In too many situations, they tell me, the prodigal son story doesn’t turn out so well. Instead, while the feast is being thrown, the son or daughter addict has found a way to sneak out the back door and pursue their drug of choice.   


That then brings up the second question that the scientific world has addressed: What can people do to release themselves from the prison of vengeance?


Way back in the 1930’s, the world of Alcoholics Anonymous came up with some of the most effective techniques ever devised to deal with holding on to hurts, and with helping people let go of their “poor me” attitudes that often led to their attempts to kill their pain through alcohol or drugs or gambling or pornography, or a combination of any or all of them.

Fr. Richard Rohr, in his powerful book entitled Breathing Under Water, has written about this as well as anyone I know. It’s a book about the spirituality of the Twelve Steps.

What he shows so clearly is that what people need to do to get rid of their holding on to vengeance and old hurts is to do what AA calls “cleaning up my side of the street.” In other words, stop the blaming. Stop the finger-pointing. Stop the “poor me” attitude. In fact, AA has a famous saying that demonstrates the intimate connection between self-pity and drinking: “Poor me. Poor me. Pour me another.”   

Allow me now to highlight three of the 12 Steps and notice how the emphasis is on me, what I can do, and not on those on the other side of the street who I’ve spent so much time and energy blaming and comparing myself to.

Step 7: “Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.” Note: The focus is on me and my seeking change for me, not for anyone else.

Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” Again, the focus is not on making a list of what others have done to me – which is what we continually want to do in our brains, but on what I’ve done to others.

Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people whenever possible ….” Once again, my making amends, not demanding it from others.

Cleaning up my side of the street.


And there’s more …

Those scientists, philosophers, and religious that promote reconciliation and forgiveness have recommended several other steps that can be taken to help provide the experience of freedom that can come from mercy and forgiveness.

Here are the steps they recommend:

  1. Study the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as recommended above
  2. Carefully examine the situation, which includes acknowledging the fact that both the victim and the perpetrator have been injured
  3. Make an effort to generate humility in ourselves by considering our own transgressions, especially what we did to contribute to the situation
  4. Realize that we have become the real victims: we have allowed ourselves to be held hostage by our desire for vengeance
  5. Reflect on the great Gospel stories of mercy
  6. Realize our Church offers at least two great sacraments that can profoundly assist in this process: Eucharist and Reconciliation.

In the Eucharist, we begin by together as a community confessing our need for mercy (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy) and then profess our sorrow “through my fault ….” We then are fed and nourished by the Word and then the Body and Blood of Jesus so that we can hopefully leave with the conviction that we have another chance and greater resources to heal our desire to offend others. The sacrament of Reconciliation offers us the opportunity to “name the demons” in our life, to specifically seek God’s help in making the switch from vengeance to mercy by hearing the words of the priest – who serves “in persona Christi” and on behalf of the community – speak those consoling and comforting words: “I absolve you ….” It’s interesting to note too that AA says this in Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” They believe strongly that unless you name your failings to “another human being,” you will find it too easy to slip/slide away and let yourself off the hook too easily.

  1. Involve ourselves in therapy if needed so that we can be directed at moving from victim to forgiver.
  2. Peruse a website entitled: www.forgiving.org


Perhaps the greatest example of all this we’ve been talking about concerning the power of mercy is best given by an African woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza. In her book, Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, she tells her story of growing up in Rwanda, a country she dearly loved, surrounded by a family she deeply cherished.

In 1994, her idyllic world was ripped apart as Rwanda descended into bloody genocide. Her family was brutally murdered during a killing spree that lasted three months and claimed the lives of nearly one million Rwandans.

Miraculously, Immaculee survived the slaughter. For 91 days, she and seven other women huddled silently together in a cramped bathroom while hundreds of machete-wielding killers hunted for them.

It was during those endless hours of unspeakable terror that Immaculee discovered the power of prayer, eventually shedding her fear of death and forging a profound and lasting relationship with God. She emerged from her bathroom hideout having truly discovered the meaning of unconditional love – a love so strong that she was able to seek out and forgive her family killers!!

Immaculee learned what the gift of mercy, and true forgiveness is all about. It’s about mimicking the very love of God, a God whose name is Mercy, a God whose identity card is Mercy, a God who seeks us out and calls each of us to live out that same mercy with one another.

The Gospel of Luke puts it very bluntly: “Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.”

So, here’s the good news: If Immaculee could do it in the midst of the horror she experienced; if she could seek out her offenders – seek out the very ones who murdered her family; if she could throw her arms around them in mercy; if she could put that much trust in the God who seeks each of us out … then we can too.

We really can. But we can’t do it alone. It’s too difficult. It’s too demanding.

We need one another. We need the community. We need prayer. We need the sacraments.

My friend, Fr. Tom Kelly, gave me a birthday gift that is a real treasure. And it’s a gift that points out exactly what we’re seeing here tonight: that we need the helping hand of each other to go the route of mercy.

The gift he gave me is this: His sister is an artist and she did this special piece of art work in calligraphy. Here are the words she wrote in this work of art: “We are all just walking each other home.” In grace. In mercy. In forgiveness. In the hand of Abba, the Father of Jesus – whose very name is Mercy.

And the end result for us will be the same as it is for Immaculee, the same as it was for the father of the Prodigal Son, the same as it was for me when my Dad washed away my fears: freedom – freedom to live without all that baggage and all that meanness and all that heartache. Freedom to live in the Spirit who joins us as we “walk each other home.”

“Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.”  

This is my wish to all of you.


Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.




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