Too Kind? How to Apply Mercy in Parenting

Is it possible to be too kind? Was I showing mercy the way God shows it, or was I short-circuiting the learning process? How should parents apply mercy?

It was a difficult time of child-rearing. The child in question was not making the changes that were needed. Privileges were taken away. Penalties were imposed. Admonishment was given. Tears were shed by both of us. But nothing changed.

I sought counsel from many sources, but one that really made a difference was the person who said, “You are just being too kind.”

Too kind?

I was taken aback by this. How could I be “too kind” to a child?

The person noted that when I imposed the penalties and took away the privileges, I would almost always extend an opportunity to “earn the privileges back” as a reward for good behavior.

This wasn’t my first experience with child-rearing and this motivational “technique” had worked many times before. 

But this was a different child with a different mind-set. With this child, boundaries were always pushed, and when I offered the opportunity to earn privileges back, mercy became expected. And when that happened, the penalty was nullified and the lesson was lost. Nothing changed because he knew that he could go ahead and do what was wrong, and I would always make allowances.

But mercy is good, right? We see over and over throughout Scripture that God loves mercy.

So why wasn’t mercy working with this child? Was I showing it incorrectly or at the wrong time?

How can a person show too much mercy or show it at the wrong time? Is that even possible?

Well, actually, yes.

The relationship between the law, being just, judgment and mercy

It might be helpful to take a look at a few other important concepts—the law, being just and judgment. The law outlines what is right and what is wrong—it gives the boundaries. (As an illustration, you might think of driving a car. A boundary might be a speed limit of 50 miles per hour.)

Being just is obeying the law. One is just because he or she obeys the law, and one is guilty (unjust) because he or she did not. (You were going 75—you are guilty.)

Judgment puts an action or penalty into play. (You now owe a $200 fine for going 75 in a 50-mile-per-hour zone.)

In this scenario, mercy says, “Even though you owe this fine, I am going to let you off the hook.”

Mercy, in general, is a release or kindness shown out of compassion to a person that you have the ability to penalize or harm.

But, if mercy is automatically granted every time a penalty is incurred, the law becomes pointless. People will do whatever they want any time they want because they are confident the penalty will always be removed. Think honestly about how fast you might drive if you knew a penalty would never be imposed.

How does God apply mercy?

Is that how God applies mercy? Does He, in effect, see us sin, tell us the penalty is death, and then automatically just wipe that penalty away every time? If that were the case, why would there be a law at all?

God does want to be merciful to us, but is there something more involved?

God outlines His law in the pages of the Bible. It gives us the boundaries for right and wrong. When we break those boundaries, we are guilty of sin. Judgment says that because we are guilty, the penalty is death. God, in His mercy, says to repent and change (Acts 3:19). There is a call to action.

What our Father wants

Our spiritual Father wants to show us mercy, but He also wants us to change. He wants to see us make the effort to be obedient. He wants us to learn the lesson so we don’t keep repeating the mistake. Repentance and conversion mean that we listen to Jesus Christ and decide to live a different life—to make different choices. Repentance involves a change of action and heart.

I was not allowing the teaching process to be completed. I needed to wait to see a change of heart before taking away the penalty.God gives us His law to outline our path; He expects us to study and learn from that amazing guide He has given us; He wants us to see our sins and change our ways and our heart and ask for forgiveness. And He wants to give us mercy. He wants so intensely to give us mercy. But He knows exactly when to give it—and how long to wait for us to learn what we need to first.

Learning how to apply mercy

He also wants us to learn how to apply mercy.

Jesus related the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:22-35. A man owed a debt, and he went to the person he owed in an apparently repentant attitude and asked for time to pay the debt. The person he owed had mercy on him and didn’t just give him time, but actually forgave the whole debt.

However, the man who had received mercy did not show the same compassion to another person who owed him a debt. The story did not end so well for the unmerciful man.

One major point of that story is that God is very merciful to us. He even facilitated that mercy by allowing His Son to be brutally murdered to pay for our sins. Therefore, we have a responsibility to reflect the mercy He shows us onto our fellow man. But we must consider how to apply it appropriately.

Applying mercy in parenting

We, as Christians, have been granted a lot of mercy in our lives. When we think about these principles of applying mercy, it is interesting to look back at how God has very wisely used mercy with us. And we find that there are many ways we, too, can extend mercy to others. 

For me, child-rearing has been an intensive class on justice, judgment and specifically mercy. Each child has different needs—much like each Christian. Studying God’s application of these principles helps each of us apply them in various situations in our lives: child-rearing, employment, etc. In love, we have to outline the rules, explain the penalties, enforce those penalties and then wait to be gracious.

In this case, with this child, I realized that I was using mercy as a bribe. The learning process was being nullified because I was not letting the “law” and the penalties teach a lesson. I was not allowing the teaching process to be completed. I needed to wait to see a change of heart before taking away the penalty.

It was not easy for me to make this adjustment, but when I did, the child quit pushing so hard and change actually happened. It was amazing to see God’s way work once again!

About the Author

Mary Clark

Mary Clark is married to Tom Clark who pastors three Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in western Arkansas.

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