Mercy of Obligation

In a busy day which involved interaction with a few, separate friends of mine, it hit me that I am obligated in some interesting ways.  I never thought about obligation in the fashion I would like to lay out in this reflective piece.  Normally, I don’t think much about obligations.  I would confess it is not even a word that I like that much.  Maybe that stems from my Quaker suspicion of authority.  Too often, authorities put us under obligation.  Erroneously perhaps, I have tended to equate obligation with orders from somebody!

I welcome a chance to think afresh about obligation.  And when I attach the word, mercy, with obligation, it really does take on a different hue.  No longer does obligation suggest rules, orders and unwilling obedience.  With mercy attached to it, obligation becomes invitational and hopeful.  I realize not only do I oblige; I do it willingly and happily.

When I think about the word, obligation, it is easy to see the relational aspect.  If I am obligated to you, then you and I are in a relationship.  And the same is true if you are obligated to me.  I also realize not all obligations are one-on-one.  I think there are individuals obligated to groups.  And there are groups obligated to other groups.  So the idea of obligation is actually fairly complex.

The other thing I realize about obligation is recognizing I am, in fact, obligated even in situations where I don’t think it would occur to me to use the language of obligation.  Let me give a simple example.  When my first child was born, I suddenly was obligated in some significant ways.  Of course, there are laws that rightly say I can’t abuse her, that I have to feed her, etc.  But my sense of obligation went far above the letter of the law.

I felt obligated to care for her in the very best way I could.  I felt obligated to help her grow into a strong, independent young woman (we succeeded!).  There were educational obligations that I owned that certainly were not required.  She went to a more expensive school rather than some local options.  They would have been quite good, but she wanted something else.  I felt obligated to help her become her very best.

Moving to another example, I think a great deal about friendship.  I don’t think there are many laws governing friendship.  For the most part, friendships are an issue of voluntary free choices.  No one makes me be a friend.  And I can’t force someone else to become my friend.  But when two friends opt for that friendship, they necessarily also assume some obligations that go with friendship.  There is no legal contract that outlines the obligations of friendship.  All of us are on our own in our friendships.

When I think about my friendships, I realize there is the mercy of obligation.  This is a good deal for me!  If someone becomes my friend, in effect they willingly agree to be full of mercy for me.  They agree to be helpful and supportive.  Tacitly, they sign up for making my life better.  While they do not want me to mess us, if I do mess up, they will be there to help the situation and me be better.  The mercy of obligation means there should be an element of forgiveness when I do mess up.

The mercy of obligation means they should be willing to go the second mile with me.  This kind of friendship is a joy.  It is a joy because there is someone out there who is there for you.  There is someone who thinks you are pretty neat.  They want to be with you and they like you.  Often you are treated better than you deserve.  That is mercy.  I thank God for these kinds of friends and for their mercy.

And then I realize, friendship is a reciprocal relationship.  Not only am I the recipient of the mercy of obligation in my friendships, but I also am obliged in a similar way to my friends.  I can flip the phrase: I have been talking about the mercy of obligation and can now talk about the obligation of mercy.  That is what I owe my friends (and what I owed my daughter in the earlier example).  In agreeing to be a friend, I also agree to take on the obligation of mercy.

When the friendship is real, offering mercy is not that hard.  I say this, while recognizing that offering mercy can often be costly.  If my friend wrongs me somehow, being merciful with forgiveness is not easy.  But it is the right thing to do.  Offering mercy can feel very unbalanced.  If I offer mercy, it can seem like the other person won and I lost.  However, if I feel this way, then it really isn’t truly a friendship.  Friends are willing to lose if that means their friend wins.

The final truth of obligation and mercy is the good news that everyone is a winner.  Because friendship is mutual and reciprocal, the mercy obligation goes both ways.  Ultimately, no one loses and both win.  Thank God for friendship and the obligation that comes with friendship.  It is a chance to learn and experience mercy.

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