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Severe Mercy Is Mercy Nonetheless

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2018 29 Nov

An image of a person shaping a pot on a potter's wheel.

Sheldon Van Auken wrote a book entitled A Severe Mercy, a love story focused on the tragic death of his wife, Davy. In the midst of his grief, Van Auken came to realize that though God’s mercy can seem severe at times, it is mercy nonetheless.

His conclusion reminded me of meeting Genelle Guzman-McMillan, the last survivor of the World Trade Center Towers collapse. Instead of railing against a God who had allowed such a tragedy to occur, Genelle stunned me by saying she did not regret her experience because it was when she was buried alive under a mountain of rubble that she had come to know Christ.

Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, puts it in rather stark terms:

“What, has made you so patient? What has made you so broad, so deep, and so rich? God put pickaxes into you, though you did not like it. He dug wells of salvation in you. He took you in His strong hand and shook you by His north wind. He rolled you in His snows and fed you with the coarsest food. He clothed you in the coarsest raiment and beat you as a flail beats grain till the straw is gone and the wheat is left.

“And you are what you are by the grace of God’s providence, many of you. By fire, by anvil strokes, by the hammer that breaks the flinty rock, you are made what you are. You were gold in the rock, and God played miner, and blasted you out of the rock.... Now you are gold, free from the rock by the grace of God’s severity to you…. No person is ordained until his sorrows put into his hands the power of comforting others.”1

Let me make it clear that I don’t think God is wielding a divine pickaxe or a gigantic hammer, though at times it may feel as though he is. Beecher was a nineteenth-century preacher who was reaching for vivid imagery to help his listeners grasp hold of an analogy that is supported by Scripture—that God is actively reshaping us into his image. Sometimes God does this by drawing treasure out of our sufferings, turning evil circumstances to a good purpose for those who love him:

“There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Today as you ponder God’s mercy, ask him to show you how he has already redeemed many of your sorrows, making you into a person who has not only been touched by his mercy but who has learned to show mercy to others.


1. Henry Ward Beecher, “The God of Comfort in Classic Sermons on the Attributes of God, compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1989), 91-92.