Why we’re undeservedly blessed to have a forgiving and merciful God.
Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:5-7 (NKJV)
This declaration that God made about Himself and His own character is a theme which repeats throughout the various texts comprising the scripture of the Bible. The stories are heavily populated with flawed individuals who constantly make mistakes which result in disaster. Throughout it all, God bears with them patiently and overlooks their faults while coaxing them to do better. People get multiple chances to change their ways and if they persist with ignoring God’s attempts to reason with them, then they suffer the consequences of their decisions. The example of Manasseh in 2nd Chronicles chapter 33 demonstrates how forgiving God actually is.
If God’s mercies were not renewed every morning [Lamentations 3:22-23] and His faithfulness to His promises steadfast, we would all have suffered the consequences of our actions long ago.
Contrast this patient, faithful, merciful, forgiving God with the average person you know: how forgiving are they? If humans have the smallest amount of power over others, how merciful are they? When you’re struggling and failing repeatedly, how patient are most people? How faithful are most people when it comes to relationships, or even just keeping their promises?
Narcissism is something we all have to varying degrees, because it is somewhat necessary for survival in a hostile world. Some individuals tip over into pathological levels of narcissism which results in a highly dysfunctional interpersonal style of relating to others. This relational style is characterised by certain traits such as lack of empathy, grandiose entitlement, and inflated sense of their own importance, which affects how they handle certain challenges like power, forgiveness, and mercy.
Let’s have a look at each one of those challenges and how a narcissist responds to them…
Studies into narcissism have repeatedly noted that narcissists crave power above almost anything else and often have delusions about their own importance in the grand scheme of things. One of the most interesting findings in psychology research is that exerting power and control over others is often achieved by being deliberately volatile towards others to keep them anxious and unable to anticipate the narcissists reactions:
They don’t lack self-control because they aren’t able to understand social expectations or exercise judgement, they deliberately lack self-control as a means of exerting power. Their rage is arbitrary. It has no particular rationale to it, nor is their behaviour appropriate for the situation. They cannot be reasoned with because they intend to be unreasonable.
Functional, healthy relationships are based on secure attachments where both people are treated with respect and care. In a secure relationship nobody exploits anybody’s vulnerabilities or deliberately uses emotional manipulation to control others. Reciprocal relationships are not supposed to be about domination or subjugation. It should be possible to openly discuss your thoughts and feelings with each other without the threat of rejection or a refusal to be heard.
That’s not the case in narcissistic relationships, which are a constant power-struggle and ultimately a bloodied battle field where your thoughts and feelings get trampled. Should you ever be guilty of transgression, their wrath is implacable.
Many studies have found narcissism negatively correlated with forgiveness. It’s theorised that this is a self-protection mechanism to ward off ego injury and preserve an inflated sense of self.
However, if forgiveness serves the purpose of bolstering a narcissistic ego by providing them with self-congratulatory “sainthood” and also creates a situation where another person becomes beholden to their mercy, narcissists will engage in selective forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that they relinquish any rights they believe they have to remind the person of how much they owe them one. The narcissists will come to collect on that debt regularly. They will also make sure that everyone sees how magnanimous they are to glean social status.
What about the condition God places on salvation for us to forgive others [Matthew 6:14-15]? How does that work in situations of repeated abuse and consistent unrepentance? Do we forgive no matter what?
This study found that forgiveness is good for us, except in situations where abuse is ongoing and true remorse is lacking. This is consistent with God’s method of handling forgiveness where he “by no means clears the guilty” if they are too proud to ask for His forgiveness and mercy. Asking for forgiveness automatically acknowledges that we have done something wrong.
Narcissists often withhold forgiveness, even for perceived slights which haven’t actually taken place, but do they ever ask for forgiveness? Many descriptions of narcissism say that they never apologise, but that’s not entirely true. Narcissists will say the word “sorry” to avoid conversations about accountability for their actions. In this situation “sorry” translates as “shut up” rather than a sincere apology. If you have ever heard someone say; “gosh, stop going on about it. I said sorry already…” then what they’re actually saying is “I said shut up already…”
Some studies say that narcissists withhold forgiveness while demanding forgiveness like a hypocrite, but it goes beyond a demand for implicit forgiveness in all circumstances and is more akin to demanding an exemption from accountability altogether. Their version of sorry as a means of shutting you up is not because they have any intention of changing or acknowledge how their behaviour affected you, it is an attempt to shirk responsibility by foisting it back onto their victim and claiming their victim is “unforgiving” because they want to have a conversation to resolve the damage in the relationship.
Asking for an honest conversation about someone’s conduct towards you is not unreasonable or unforgiving. For an empathetic person this conversation is aimed at resolving the conflict so they can both move past the hurt and repair the relationship. That’s why God’s salvation starts with repentance, not forgiveness [Matthew 3:2], even though He loves us before we love Him.
God’s wrath is kindled against evil because it should be. Our human anger is aroused by injustice and horrible atrocities, so why would a God of love and justice be any different?
However, God does not repay evil for evil, or unkindness for unkindness [Romans 12:17-21] and we are to love our enemies [Luke 6:27] not because they deserve it, but because God wants us to reject narcissism as much as possible and not engage in the same level of behaviour ourselves. Loving our enemies does not mean condoning evil, living with them, or continuing to associate with them. It means treating them with a level of kindness and respect which should be demonstrated by everyone, but which many people fail to live up to, and they themselves refuse to show to you. In short, we show mercy.
In this world we are all at the mercy of one-another and of God.
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” – Luke 6:35-36 (NKJV)
Some situations demonstrate this more clearly than others, such as during childhood when we are totally dependent on a caregiver; old age when we return to being dependent on a caregiver; and other life circumstances such as poverty and illness when we depend on support systems to survive.
At other times we find ourselves in the position of being able to choose mercy when we have power over other people, such as becoming a parent or an employer. We can either take that responsibility seriously and handle others with care, or we can abuse our power and withhold mercy. One of the early indicators of psychopathy is harming animals; a behaviour which displays malicious delight in tormenting a defenseless creature. Most people would not fall into the category of a psychopath, but according to psychology and the bystander effect, we are all more than capable of standing by and watching others suffer.
God clearly states in the scripture that He wants His people to be different from the world by actively engaging in mercy towards those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged such as widows, orphans, the poor, and sojourners. These demographics could be described as people without families, friends, means of income, or homes. When you are a charity case and someone knows you don’t have many options other than them, they have the option of exploiting your weakened state.
If people increasingly tend towards narcissism, those who find themselves down and out in life will become prey. Even in small situations of power imbalance a narcissist will force others to walk on eggshells around them by subjecting them to unpredictable mood swings which result in aggressive behaviour. Living at the mercy of another person’s mood is almost unbearable because there is nothing you can do or say which will affect the very real outcomes you are subjected to.
In contrast, if we seek to be more like Jesus and follow His example, then we should understand that God wants us to show mercy to one another rather than approaching God through our works of the flesh.
Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” – Matthew 9:10-13 (NKJV)
Those who are self-righteous have no need of a God who forgives and redeems. But those who know God’s mercy also know how to extend mercy to others, which is the message of the parable of the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46 where it says; “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ “
God takes it personally when someone either shows mercy to His people, or fails to show mercy to His people.
We cannot escape the reality that we are constantly at the mercy of others who may, or may not, choose to help us out. Some will abuse that power, but Jesus tells us that even though they have power in this life, they do not have the ability to affect our salvation.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Copyright © 1982 Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved.
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Worthington, E.L., Everett L., Jr, Garthe, R. C., Cowden, R. G., & Griffin, B. J. (2019). Forgiveness moderates relations between psychological abuse and indicators of psychological distress among women in romantic relationships. South African Journal of Science, 115(11-12), 95–101. https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2019/6353