More than two centuries before the first smartphone, there lived a Jewish prophet named Micah. Along with other prophets in biblical history, Micah sounded warnings against foolish and rebellious living, and he prophesied future events, particularly pertaining to the Israelites.
Given the foolishness and rebellion I see all around me (and including my own), I find myself revisiting a famous and inspiring quote from Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
I’ve learned to look upon biblical wisdom more as guidance and light than as sanction or restraint. It’s a challenge and a joy to study and apply these ancient insights to life in the world today. I find myself actively questioning: how do Micah’s words apply to me in this present day and age?
Before I explain, I want to share with you some other words of contemporary secular wisdom I learned personally decades ago from a well-known author named John McCollister. He taught me that the single most important word in any author’s expository writing is “you,” because, in the final analysis, this is the person you are most interested in learning about. I confirmed this axiom from subsequent decades of my own writing and from my on-going efforts to engage and interest my readers and make my insights and ideas relevant to them.
However, in this article, I have intentionally chosen to discard this principle and to speak in the first person and let the reader infer from my reflections about my own struggles, fallibilities, and limitations.
Micah’s Old Testament wisdom is recapitulated throughout the bible in various exhortations that include the words of other prophets, the Psalms and Proverbs, and in the words of Jesus. Yet Micah 6:8 is distinctively succinct and summarily relevant. There are three key concepts in this verse that relate directly and profoundly to me today.
To act justly... corresponds to behavior, the manner in which I interact with the world and others. For example, how do I respond when I realize the cashier at the supermarket has neglected to charge me for a small item that’s inadvertently slipped into the bottom tier of my cart? Another case in point would be: how do I handle or discharge my anger when I have been affronted?
...to love mercy... encompasses emotions, desires, passions, empathy, and temptations—the demonstrable spectrum of my heart, feelings, inner reactions, and desires.
In discerning the delicate balance of holding people accountable and yet also being forgiving, how, when, and where do I choose mercy instead of restitution?
...to walk humbly with your God... refers to identity, values, and beliefs—who am I quintessentially?
What characterizes me, my hard work, accomplishments, and talents? What do I “own” and identify with, as opposed to what I have been given?
To act justly...
Actions speak loudly. Words are actions, too. However, actions generally imply behavior that I manifest toward others. My thoughts reflect my character and desires, and they may become actions. But what I put out there in three dimensions is of utmost importance. It cannot be undone. To be just is to be true, correct, fair, and act according to established principles. Acting justly means doing the right thing. And what is “the right thing?” For starters, it means following the rules (even if I don’t like some of them). No cheating, no rationalizing or justifying breaking the rules. Those rules include God’s laws (as set forth in his Word, the Bible) and man’s rules, according to the governing laws of the land.
Following the rules doesn’t end with only satisfying the law—that would fall short of God’s commandments, a vital one of which is to love others and put them ahead of oneself. Jesus, that’s a tough one, as it goes against my “nature.” To act justly means doing the right thing and treating others as I would like to be treated. This requires quite a bit more than simply adhering to the rules. It necessitates mercy.
...to love mercy
Micah exhorts me to love mercy! Don’t just show mercy out of pity, guilt, condescension, or hoping to get something in return. To love mercy, I must seek it, embrace it, and treasure it. It means I look for opportunities to provide mercy. It becomes part of a way of life. It is my “go-to” impulse and emotion.
With mercy, I can rejoice, both for the sake of blessing and forgiving others and for peace with myself and God—for I am ever aware of how merciful God is toward me.
Mercy is always a choice. Just like behavior, which is influenced by many factors and predecessors, each circumstance offers me options for how to respond.
Loving mercy compels me to consider others and how God loves them, too. If I love mercy, the way to act is much clearer.
...to walk humbly with your God
The three tenets of Micah’s advice are, of course, intertwined. By acting justly and loving mercy, I will be conscious of my own temptations and limitations. I will be reminded of my natural tendencies to act selfishly and my obligation to control and override those propensities. So, who is this person who must fight with himself and vigilantly strive for the good of others and something better than indulging my own desires?
I am actually not much more than a mammal with survival instincts, passions, and a keen scheming mind—without God. However, when I recognize God’s creation, his direct interest in me, his divine intervention, his holiness, mercy, and power… I am overwhelmed and humbled. I defer to God as the center of the universe and my being. When I choose to walk with him, to follow him, to listen to him, I have a new identity. I am no longer imprisoned by or in my self. Who I am revolves around values and beliefs that arise from who God reveals himself to be. As such, I am humbled, and deliberately choose to live my days migrating in the direction that God wants.
Acknowledgment, conscience, contrition, aspiration, and study are all parts of a worthy life. But talking the talk does not equal walking the walk. How do I put this into practice? How can I?
It’s a daily struggle, I confess. I’m doing better—but it’s never close to being “good enough.” Just recognizing the hopelessness and doom of this is enough to make me regularly cry out to God. I need HELP!
God listens, and he does help. My duty is to walk humbly with him, so I can hear him and obey. Yet, my wanting to (mostly) doesn’t prevent mistakes. Micah’s simple words reach out and remind me to stay on course.
I made a mistake in college that still haunts me. I know God has forgiven me, and I regret what I did (though I can’t change the past). I reflect upon this mistake and guilt to steer me away from the worldly rationalizations and justifications that feed temptation:
In college, I wanted to sell my old car. I put an ad in the paper and, after several inquiries and visits from would-be buyers, I took a deposit from another student. After he paid me the deposit (with an agreement to pay the rest and pick up the car in a few days), another person offered me more money than I had agreed to sell the car to the person who paid the deposit. So I sold the car for more money to the latecomer, and then I returned the deposit to the original person who first paid me. This individual was crestfallen. He reminded me that “a deal’s a deal.”
I felt awful (as well I should have!). Despite my selfish rationalization and justification, I knew that I had behaved badly. That others might have done the same or even praised my capitalist profit did not hide the fact that I had been greedy and gone back on my word. I did not know God at the time, but clearly he was speaking to me and preparing me. Decades later, I concluded that all I really have in this world is my word and God’s Word. It is true.
In selling that car to the wrong person, I didn’t break any of man’s laws. But I failed to act justly. Of that, I am ashamed.
This is a world of “dog eat dog.” Ambition, perseverance, gaining the upper hand, profit, and “success” are all valued and defined by material evidence. Occasional acts of altruism are highlighted as news features and used to elicit mawkish respect and to pepper self-congratulations. I “feel” good when I “do” good. But that is not the spirit of mercy.
I am severely challenged by my own strong will and self-righteousness. I love to be right and to be vindicated and validated. The selfish and wayward acts of others appall me. I struggle to excuse my own transgressions, and I flatter myself for tolerating the inferior behavior of others.
None of that is mercy. I want to love mercy. I strive to embrace it, and I’m learning how to practice it more and more. Mercy is rewarding, and, in its purest form, it involves sacrifice. It is looking beyond what an offensive or illegitimate behavior deserves.
Even when I act mercifully, I tend to focus on the sacrifice and altruism, rather than on the equally quintessential elements of love and forgiveness. By acting nicely or deferentially, I realize that I can easily and unwittingly slip a reward for me into the transaction: I am able to conveniently rationalize that surely only a “good” person would be predisposed to acting in this way. To avoid this self-congratulatory proclivity requires deliberate, on-going self-monitoring on my part.
God speaks differently. Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Matthew 9:13). The prophet Hosea inchoately echoes his words: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
When I do love mercy, I embrace the joy of forgiving someone who has wronged me or treated me badly. Mercy means not getting what is deserved. Thus, I choose to forgive, to relinquish any right to or demand for payback.
I can only do this because I know how much God loves me and how merciful he has been to me, repeatedly. When I am merciful to those who don’t deserve it, I don’t necessarily feel good. I have to lick my wounds. Giving other people the benefit of the doubt often makes me doubt myself. How ironic!
Being merciful is part of acting justly. It does not preclude or exclude accountability. Mercy includes and highlights forgiveness.
Loving mercy exists at a different level. Of course, I will act mercifully out of loving mercy. When I love mercy, though, I seek opportunities to be kind, gentle, and forgiving. Loving mercy allows me to rejoice in those opportunities. Moreover, I identify and connect more fully with people, and I become more like God in my character.
My actions speak louder than my words. My language both predicts and reinforces my actions, and words also reflect what’s in my heart and on my mind. These are reflections of me, and they shape me, but they are not who I am.
My identity, my core, is based upon my identification and walk with God. Walking humbly means that I let God direct the show. He’s in charge, and I follow. If only I could be more faithful to that commitment!
Walking humbly means that I accept not getting my way. To walk humbly, I must control myself, but not insist upon controlling others (even when I’m sure I have their best interests in mind and know how to achieve those ends).
When I walk humbly, I receive God’s comfort, even in the face of pain, suffering, and rejection. I accept discipline, hold dear the opportunities God allows me, and I don’t rebel when he shuts doors or doesn’t give me what I want.
To walk humbly is to pray and to have faith that God listens, that he cares about me, that he has plans for me, and that his love is eternal, profound, and all encompassing.
Walking humbly gives me a constant awareness that I’m physically on earth for a limited time, that God sees everything, and that there is judgment. This awareness profoundly affects my conscience, my desires, my behavior, and my gratitude.
For centuries, the wisdom of Micah’s words has served to warn and guide us mortals. I use these words as a reality check and an update on my soul.