Catholic Spiritual Works of Mercy Painted for Protestants

In my last piece, I discussed the corporal works of mercy. From my perspective, I found that these could be supported as Scriptural from the words of Christ with the exception of burying the dead, which I did a circuitous line of logic to support from Genesis.

In this piece, I’ll review the spiritual works of mercy. I propose to extend into the entire New Testament before looking at the Old Testament because I believe these might be a little more challenging.

According to the website by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the spiritual works of mercy are intended to provide a pattern for meeting the spiritual needs of our neighbors.

They are the following:

  • Counseling the doubtful
  • Instructing the ignorant
  • Admonishing the sinner
  • Comforting the sorrowful
  • Forgiving injuries
  • Bearing wrongs patiently
  • Praying for the living and the dead

Counseling the doubtful

While in Jude verse 22 in the NIV we are commanded to be merciful to those who doubt, there is no direct command, “Counsel ye the doubtful.”

Acts 16:40 and Acts 20:1-3 show Paul the apostle along with his traveling companions encouraging the people he visits.

Paul also shows in 2 Corinthians 7:5-7 that God the Father can encourage His children through arranging circumstances. Acts 9:31 shows the Holy Spirit encourages Christians.

While we don’t have a direct command, it can be argued that we are to imitate Christ as dearly beloved children. Christ as the second Person of the Trinity would be partaking in the encouragement done by the Father and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we should attempt to encourage through our words and actions.

Instructing the ignorant

In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul tells Timothy:

And a slave of the Lord shouldn’t fight. On the contrary, he should be kind to everyone, a good teacher, and not resentful when mistreated. Also he should be gentle as he corrects his opponents. For God may perhaps grant them the opportunity to turn from their sins, acquire full knowledge of the truth, come to their senses and escape the trap of the Adversary, after having been captured alive by him to do his will. (Complete Jewish Bible)

Since we are all called to serve Jesus, our instructions from Paul (who saw the Risen Jesus) clearly indicate that we are to teach (and teach well). Not only are we to teach those who are interested in our teaching, but we are also to teach those who oppose us.

In Galatians 6:6, those of us who are being taught are instructed to share all the good things we are learning in the Word with those who are teaching us.

Admonishing the sinner

Matthew 18:25 advises that we are to work with sinners. When someone sins, you are to go to them privately and try to show them a better way. If that doesn’t work, you can approach the sinner, but you must have two or three witnesses.

Comforting the sorrowful

This was quite difficult. However, I believe it is doable if we review Romans 12:14-16 in its entirety and then take the sentences out of order.

Bless those who persecute you [who are cruel in their attitude toward you]; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice [sharing others’ joy], and weep with those who weep [sharing others’ grief]. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty (snobbish, high-minded, exclusive), but readily adjust yourself to [people, things] and give yourselves to humble tasks. Never overestimate yourself or be wise in your own conceits. (Amplified Bible, Classic Edition)

Because we are to live in harmony with others and readily adjust to the needs of others, it is important that we show solidarity. We are to enjoy the happiness of those who are joyful. We are also to weep with those who mourn, thereby sharing their grief and giving some comfort.

Forgiving injuries

Forgiveness is a huge deal in all Christianity. Christ died on the Cross to ensure there is pardon and forgiveness from God the Father for our sins. Matthew 6:12 in just about every version of the Bible says “forgive us XX as we forgive XX .” XX can be sins/sin, debts/debtors, trespass/trespasses, shortcomings/failures.

Matthew 6:14-15 reminds us that because our Heavenly Father has done it for us we must do it for others. If we fail to forgive we lose the forgiveness He offers. Matthew 18:22 indicates we may have to forgive an inordinate number of times.

Bearing wrongs patiently

1 Peter 3:13-17 states:

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (New International Version)

We are promised that when we suffer injustice at the hands of men we are receiving a blessing from God. Therefore, we should not fear anything, but we should be positive and hopefully. We keep a clear conscience by choosing to follow the Word and not speak against those who are harming us.

But even better than Peter’s words are the Words of Jesus in the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (World English Bible)

Praying for the living and the dead

This is a hard one to find basis in Scripture. You have to split it into two subworks.

Praying for the living

This is so easy.

Romans 12:12 (Complete Jewish Bible): Rejoice in your hope, be patient in your troubles, and continue steadfastly in prayer.

Ephesians 6:18-19 (Names of God): Pray in the Spirit in every situation. Use every kind of prayer and request there is. For the same reason be alert. Use every kind of effort and make every kind of request for all of God’s people. Also pray that God will give me the right words to say. Then I will speak boldly when I reveal the mystery of the Good News.

Matthew 5:44-45 (World English Bible): But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Praying for the dead

This is difficult. First a distinction must be made. Praying to the dead is about talking to those who have passed before you. Praying for the dead is about praying to God about those who are dead.

Catholics do accept non-worship prayer to those who are in heaven. I do not, and I would only point to the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel to refute this.

Prayer for the dead warrants investigation. Protestants do not accept 2 Maccabees as part of our canon, but Catholics do. 2 Maccabees does have a passage about prayer for the dead. Although I cannot find modern Jewish Bibles online with those books, I do not know if any modern Jewish synagogues accept those books as “Torah approved.”

2 Maccabees 12:41-45 states (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition):

So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

When these books are rejected, you don’t have a Scriptural mandate for praying for the dead. However, there might be a way to at least consider the possibility of prayer for the dead. Humans are finite creatures. We have a definitive start at birth, we move through time in one direction, and we have a definitive end at death.

God however is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Therefore, He is not constrained to being within the human time-line. He hovers over all times and places with all knowledge. It could be argued that a person in the 4th century is just as real and present to Him as a person in the 21st century even if the 4th and 21st century individuals don’t know each other.

Because all things are possible, it is reasonable that I in the 21st century could ask God the Father to watch over, protect, and save everyone in my family line from Adam and Eve until the Second Coming. He as God can honor or not honor that request within the confines of His application of the individuals’ free will. I won’t, but as a reasoning human, I can accept this as a logical defense for praying for the dead (not to).

I believe that I have successfully given Biblical support for Protestants joining Catholic family and friends in efforts that support the first six spiritual works of mercy. And I believe at least half of the seventh is supported as well.

Don’t be sad—6.5 out of 7 isn’t bad!


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