If you ever have a chance to ride with me in a car somewhere, you should take it. Even if it’s only a short ride down the street, you’d learn so much from me about how every one around us could improve their driving. I may wonder aloud what causes people to drive like absolute morons, but I would most likely simply marvel at them — at that man blocking nine cars from making their protected turn because he decided he didn’t want to be in the left turn lane and is now motioning to the motorist to his right to let him pull back into the other lane; or that woman trying to merge onto a busy interstate driving 30 mph with a phone in her ear and a chihuahua in her lap. I would marvel, and I would shout out the solution to the problem: “Take the protected turn, you moron! Figure it out later!”; “Drop the phone, lady, and use your gas pedal! The one on the right!”
And that is forever my impulse: to shout out the answer in the face of a problem. And not just for traffic problems. There are problems everywhere: business problems, relationship problems, diet problems, behavioral problems, philosophical problems, crime problems. So often the solutions to problems seem so obvious to any one with the sense to see them. Some problems may be beyond the scope of any one to fix presently, like incurable diseases or natural disasters. But when the problems originate with people –and all of the worst problems in this world do– I see no reason why, with the proper application of common sense, they couldn’t be fixed. Government shut-downs, terrorism, pollution, price gouging, and even poverty — all should be fixable.
Isn’t this really what we have in mind when we speak of “fixing the world” and its problems? Applying common sense across the board? I fantasize about the scenario: actually applying common sense around the globe… (cue the wavy daydream blur and the harp sound effect). Where the problems were innocent, those with a problem could be shown the solution they couldn’t recognize, or those causing the problem could be shown their error, and that would be the end of it. Where the problems were criminal and the problem causers became perpetrators, common sense would be applied in the form of justice — whatever particular justice would best right the wrongs and ensure no future crime from the perpetrator. In so many scenarios, the common sense solution ought to be simple to apply. Applied everywhere at all times, it could fix the world! If only a plan could be devised and implemented to educate and train every one on earth how to operate and problem-solve sensibly. Common sense just makes too much…sense.
What, then, is God’s plan to save the world — the God who is the source of common sense, that is, of rightness, rationality, and justice? When I turn and consider the divine economy, the saving actions of God in the world, I discover that the method isn’t overtly common sensical at all. Nor is it full of “Justice” as is often thought. The primary method in God’s plan turns out to be mercy. And the kind of mercy that isn’t merely not giving people what they deserve; rather it’s giving people what they don’t deserve. It’s an active offering. It’s an audacious liberalism. Consider the examples in the gospels: the master who forgives the great debt of the servant; the landowner who pays a full wage to those who were hired last; the host who invites every one on the street to his banquet; the sower who scatters “wastefully”; the disowned father of the returning prodigal; the Samaritan who rescued and provided for the bloodied stranger; the publican who was justified; and the penitent thief promised paradise in his last hour. This is the way God works in the world, and it’s the way his people are charged to behave as well. If, for some reason, we fail to infer from these examples that we should follow this pattern, Jesus makes it explicitly clear several times: provide a second cheek to be slapped after the first, offer your cloak as well after you’ve been sued for your tunic, love and pray for your friends and your enemies, forgive others’ debts to you, and don’t judge others. Also, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned — all who will be unable to pay you back.
The plan of mercy comes as a shock to me. It seems to oppose common sense. But what’s interesting is that the model of divine mercy isn’t actually contrary to common sense at all. Rather, it transcends it. Common sense, it turns out, is a fairly low behavior — even if so many of us in the world fail to attain to it. Its essence is pragmatism; on the whole it’s morally neutral. It’s simple cognition, really. Successful utilization of common sense can lead to high achievement levels in all walks of life, but it cannot produce sanctity. That’s the key. What is the purpose of everything, the ultimate purpose of life? What’s the point of saving the world if you don’t know what it’s all for? Christianity says that the ultimate purpose of human life is actually to partake of the Divine Life. Sanctity. And the εὐαγγέλιον (good news) is that this is now possible by “following Jesus” — a wearisome, trite phrase for much of our culture now, but a phrase which, to the Church, indicates the most profoundly, metaphysically transformative way of life a human being could undergo. Common sense alone would never get you there. It just doesn’t go far enough. But never would common sense be violated in this divine plan — only transcended.
The defining action of this way of life is self-giving: self-giving to God manifested in devotion, and self-giving to others manifested in mercy. This self-giving, self-emptying, or kenosis (κένωσις), is the surest—nay, the only way to be filled with God, to partake of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). In devotion to God, the heart turns to the source of its life and is filled. In mercy to others, not only are those to whom mercy is being shown blessed, but the one showing mercy is also blessed, and sanctified. Mercy saves the world. Actually, God saves the world –and this is an important distinction– because mercy is not a plan or a scheme or a system. Practicing mercy is simply allowing God to act through us. Emptying our selves of self-will, we become the hands and feet of Christ himself, and it’s God in Christ who saves the world. We feed and clothe and heal and bless, all the while walking the via crucis, whereupon reaching the end, having been faithful in our kenosis, we discover that we are raised to new life — a life that makes the shadows of our old dreams of self-advancement look like the schemings of ants, or worse still, the workings of devils. We are raised to new life and so is the world around us, where ever our works of mercy touched it. It was not only Christ in us, but Christ in every one to whom we showed mercy (Matt 25:34-40).
Common sense is good, but it’s not enough. So I’ve concluded that my scheme of universal common sense would only produce a world full of rich young rulers [Mark 10:17-22, Matthew 19:16-22] with an abundance of common sense but a deficiency in mercy. And all my scheming is ever only prideful self-indulgence without respect for God’s purposes anyway. My plan to save the world is doomed to fail and indicative of my own wickedness. But God’s plan to save the world saves it. It saves me. It’s for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. God empties himself that he might fill all things, teaching us to empty ourselves that we might be filled with the fullness of what we were created to be.