A Severe Mercy: A Book Review


Severe mercy. That’s a rather chilling way to describe something containing so much hope and freedom.

Mercy can often be misunderstood, thrown down and trampled upon by our raw emotions. How can something so good cost so much? Isn’t mercy the act of setting free; a pardon from a much deserved punishment? Why then this sting? Could it be that mercy comes at a high price? Perhaps. And if so, does it come at the expense of the giver or the receiver?

I’m not here to answer these questions. I would have to have a lot more wisdom than my 19 years allow. But I can point you to a memoir revered as much as any work by C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, or Spurgeon. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, recounts the life of Van and his wife Jean Davis, or Davy: the places they go, the people they meet, the faith they want to reject, and the transformation they undergo at the cost of a very severe mercy.


On the entirety and depth of this book, The Washington Post comments, “No brief review can do justice to the human depth of this book.”

I fully agree. This corner of the blog is merely an invitation to delve in and see for yourself the depth that is so incomparable. If my attempt to scratch-the-surface resonates at all within you, do yourself a favor and read the entire book.


A Severe Mercy tells the story of two real people, Van and Davy, whose paths first cross in a New York Department store where Davy works and where Van is a scatter-brained college student. Unable to resist her “beautiful, wide-spaced eyes”, Van promptly asks Davy out on a date at his first opportunity. This snowballs into an inseparable relationship dedicated to discovering the secret of “inloveness” and beauty.


Van and Davy have always considered themselves agnostics, but the more they seek to deepen their love, the more they begin to believe in a creator of order and beauty. After his time as a soldier in WWII, Van reluctantly decides to re-visit this absurd notion of Christianity he abandoned in his childhood. This decision would change the course of his and Davy’s life forever.

The couple moved to England after World War II to study history and literature at Oxford University. To their surprise, they meet Christian friends who actually possess wit and intelligence, one of whom was the famous teacher and author, C.S. Lewis. Van wrote to C.S. Lewis of his doubts and questions while he battled between faith and reason, desire and belief.


After a long season of searching for proof and finding unexpected answers, Van and Davy “made the rather chilling realisation that [they] could not go back” (98). Before coming to Oxford, they had neither accepted nor rejected Jesus because they had never encountered Him. But now they had. At this realization, Van exclaims in one of his letters to Lewis, “My God! There is a gap behind me, too.” Even the possibility of the validity of Christianity created a gap they did not expect. The middle ground they had stood on comfortably for so long was slowly sinking. Now that they had encountered the Gospel, they must choose to accept or reject. There were two gaps. One in front, one behind. And so they jumped. They made the choice to believe.

For some of you, you may be turned off by the detailed sentimentality of Vanauken’s writing style. Others may be overwhelmed by the perfectly blended paradox of mystery and clarity. And yet within all of us, something either comes alive or tenses up. There are no directions to this part of your soul, but something about the story triggers movement there. It triggered me.

It leads me to the realization that the Gospel demands a response. It demanded a response from Van and Davy, and it demands a response from us. Once we’ve encountered the possibility that Jesus is God and died for all, we’re faced with a choice–required to respond. The middle ground ceases to exist and we must either face the gap behind or the gap ahead and leap.

So read with caution. The Lord has made a way of mercy, but it is not without severity. It is beautiful and good beyond comprehension, but it demands a response that will cost everything.

Go under the mercy.

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