In the past I've critiqued this approach. It is wrong, because it gives away that righteousness could be anything else besides what people expect it to mean. Righteousness becomes, inadvertently, only a legal fiction because anything else would turn you into a snarling, kill-joy jerk. This is the critique I used to offer.
But these Christians have a point. Sometimes it's easy to jump over the reason why things came about in order to correct it. Again, this disposition, whether implicit or explicit, needs correcting. But we must be patient with this. We need to be patient with the Pagans who seriously have a point. Why else could Billy Joel sing "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun". Yes, we could dismiss him as a foolish entertainer who was ignorant. But that song touches on something true. Some stupid Evangelicals might blame-shift and say that he's talking about Roman Catholics. True, but this attitude is shared by many Evangelicals.
How often might we hear of righteousness? Godliness? Piety? Holiness? These are all dirty words that litter the Scripture. Again, many Evangelicals cringe at them, even if they don't know why. It's the same reason why that "Jesus hates Religion" spoken-word could go viral on Youtube. What is it that even sympathetic Pagans are feeling? Many times this conversation reflects generational differences. Millenials will think they are reinventing the wheel, and older peoples will shake their heads, both rightly and wrong. Yes, many Millenials are stupid and lack critical thinking skills to be able to properly discern good and bad argumentation. Yes, growingly popular theologies/philosophies feed into the tautological loop many are stuck in. I speak as a Millenial. But to hand-wave them (us) would be foolish. They (we) have a point
I'd argue that all of these words have gained a certain dirtiness about them is because they have been detached from any definition. They lack their central place in mercy. Forgiveness is a component of mercy, yet also within mercy is charity and giving. Mercy is the love that doesn't ask in return.
But lest we misconstrue this, let me offer an idea. Some read Jesus' story of the Widow with the Two Pennies in a way that disconnect her action from what this woman sees. Sometimes the emphasis is upon the selflessness of the deed, that she'd give her all, and thus her gift is worth more than any amount of wealth that priests, scribes, or a Pharisaical rabbi could offer. But that's not all. It's not that she merely laid down dead on altar. She did, in a way, but she did so with resurrection in mind. She offered her all, which was nothing, on God's altar because she trusted He would provide.
That's the thing about mercy, as I'm defining it. Mercy is predicated upon strength, though not necessarily your own. One can only true give Himself in the expectation of receiving himself. Forgiveness can only truly occur when we know that God can restore what was lost, since even our petty justice can hardly accomplish this. Mercy is willing to absorb debt, damage, even death, because it knows that the infinite God gives, repairs, and resurrects. Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more. In this way, mercy is conditioned by the life of Christ as the rock upon which virtue is built. It is in His work that mercy becomes our work.
This does not mean relinquishing the work of restoration. But it does give up the power of guilt or shame. And how often are those the everlasting strings that remain? We forgive you, but will never let you forget your crime. Forgive, but never forget is a way of cutting out the radical demand of mercy. In fact, mercy asks us to join in the act of blotting out sins. This is offensive because most episodes never let go. Forgiveness many times invites an attitude of superiority, patronizing, snark. Sin remains eternally as an unbridgeable gap between the righteous and the forgiven sinner. If God were to treat us this way He'd be Satan.
If piety, righteousness, holiness, virtue etc. are not defined according to the merciful heart, then they are worthless terms. As stated above, what makes mercy truly a Christian virtue is the grounded promise and act of Christ. Pagans are capable of telling stories of justice and vengeance, they are able to tell tales of romance and affection for kin, but a robust mercy will always escape such stories. They might whisper of such a desperate need in the Human heart, and try to feed our lust with the blood of the guilty, but such is inadequate. It is living according to the elementary principles of the World that St. Paul talks about.
The Lord's Prayer is rooted in many requests from God, but there is nothing of transformative virtue except this: forgive us our trespasses/sins as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us. It is truly this that St. James, brother of the Lord, references when he speaks of the "royal Law" and that "faith without works is dead". Christ tells us the parable of the man who refused to forgive a small debt, after his large debt was forgiven, and is cast into the darkness.
I thunder this: if piety is not defined according to mercy, it is meaningless. If righteousness is not defined according to mercy, it is evil. If holiness is not defined according to mercy, it is to belong to the Devil. If godliness is not defined according to mercy, it is to bear the devil's image.
Yes, one might see that I'm using the word 'mercy' in a way that the Apostles speak of love. That's not untrue. But no one means anything when they speak of love. It is the easiest word to masquerade anything through. Granted, all language is able to twist and morph in a way to create deception. But mercy still connotes a tenderness that offends, a strange willingness to cover over sins. Or, if you'd like, mercy is the engine that powers the car of love. Without it, it is hardly a car.
I need mercy, abundant mercy. I need deep forgiveness in my life. O God help me. And yet, I not only desire it, but wish to be a vessel of it. May I be merciful to others. In such may I shine the very face of God. That is my prayer. I'll end with the reconciliation of Jacob and Essau (Gen. 33):
Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants. And he put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last. Then he crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and children, and said, “Who are these with you?”
So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants came near, they and their children, and bowed down. And Leah also came near with her children, and they bowed down. Afterward Joseph and Rachel came near, and they bowed down.
Then Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company which I met?”
And he said, “These are to find favor in the sight of my lord.”
But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." And Jacob said, “No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” So he urged him, and he took it.