A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
A while ago, I wrote on “Mercie” here (http://blog.thethoughtfulchristian.com/2012/02/mercie.html), focusing on the seventeenth-century English theologian John Downame (1571-1652). God’s “mercie” is sure, since mercy is one of the attributes of God, expressing God’s nature and being.
To take this one step further, we can turn to Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth says that “when we confess God to be merciful it is not even remotely possible to demonstrate this as a logically deducible truth. All that we can do is to acknowledge the actual reality of God. What else can we produce as a proof of this confession except the fact that God has given Himself to be known by us as merciful in the name of Jesus Christ?” So if we want the name of mercy: say, “Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Christ is the “epitome of the reality of God’s mercy.” By this name, we are “divinely and therefore incontestably and irresistibly comforted” (373). Our comfort is that in the acceptance that the very heart of our misery in life—our revolt against the God on whom we are “utterly dependent”—is the object of God’s care and suffering for us. In powerful words, Barth says:
Before we are touched or can be touched by any pain which we have brought on ourselves by our sin and guilt, before we are sorry for or can be sorry for our sin, before death and hell can frighten us, and before we feel the greater terror that we are such sinners as have deserved death and hell, already in the One against whom we sin and are guilty and whose punishment threatens us we have to do with the God who Himself suffers pain because of our sin and guilt, for whom it is not an alien thing but His own intimate concern. And as God is far greater than we His creatures, so much greater is His sorrow on our behalf than any sorrow which we can feel for ourselves (373).
This is an amazing realization, isn’t it? Even before we can assume pain and sorrow for our sin, God has already done so. Even before we imagine all the terrible results and ramifications of our sin, God is already suffering pain for us and this is an “intimate concern” for God. God’s sorrow for our sin is “so much greater” on our behalf than “any sorrow which we can feel for ourselves.”
We usually don’t think of this, do we? We think of the gravity of our sin, what we have done and what we have failed to do. We are good at hammering ourselves down in judging our lives against the demands of God’s law (Luther said the law was a hammer). But greater—by far, by an infinite distance, even—is the involvement by God who is concerned for our lives and our sin; and who is expressing a sorrow for us that is greater than any sorrow we can create. This brings a new dynamic. God is sorrowful—for us.
Barth continued: “If we recognize God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, this means necessarily that we can no longer try to experience and bear in the sorrow which we have to experience and bear for ourselves an, as it were divine, eternal, irremovable weight of sorrow” (374). For “because God is merciful, a divine pain of this kind is not only taken away from us, but forbidden to us as something presumptuous….The height and depth, the inwardness and outwardness of our sorrow is really God’s concern—and ours only as it is seen and borne by God.” Indeed, “our suffering for sin has not touched us, and cannot touch us, as it touches Him.” For “it is His heart, not ours, which is suffering when we think that we are the sufferers and that we have a right or obligation to lament. His heart is wounded, and wounded through our heart.”
Our sin leaves us sorrowful, hopeless, if we think we can “do better ourselves” or cleanse ourselves. Here “sin attains its true form as opposition to the grace of God,” says Barth. But at this point, “the grace of God intervenes as the mercy of God. Jesus Christ enters human existence as the great joy which shall be to all people….Because our sin and guilt are now in the heart of God, they are no longer exclusively ours. Because He bears them, the suffering and punishment for them are lifted from us, and our own suffering can be only a reminiscence of His.”
This is truly what it means to cast our burdens on the Lord (Psalm 55:22), the burden of our sin—which we find is already carried for us by the One whose name is “Mercy,” Jesus Christ. For “as He takes to Himself our sin and guilt in His Son, we are freed from the necessity of seeing and suffering and lamenting except as His and by faith in Him, i.e., except as a burden of sin and guilt which is lifted from us by Him. It remains for us only to be the sinners whose place He has taken and who must therefore really have their life in Him” (374).
When we sin, we know God is already with us, and for us. When we sin, we hear the name and look into the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
 Karl Barth, The Doctrine of God, Church Dogmatics, eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, rpt. (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1964), II/1, 373. Page references are to this volume.