Mrs. Sarah was the matriarch of the church I attended as a teenager. During prayer meeting, when confronted with a need that seemed overwhelming, she’d often exclaim, “Lawd have mercy!”
“He does,” her husband would respond. “He does.”
God’s mercy runs like a silver thread throughout the Scriptures. The English word appears some 341 times. The four Hebrew and three Greek words associated with mercy appear 454 times and are sometimes translated as kindness, lovingkindness, goodness, favor, compassion, and pity. Fifty of the 66 books of the Bible contain the word mercy.
Since God often repeats what is most important, it’s apparent that he considers mercy a vital part of the Christian life. But what is mercy? What does it mean to be merciful? How can we cultivate a merciful spirit and demonstrate mercy to others? Let’s ponder these questions, dig into Scripture, and come away with a greater understanding of this vital characteristic of the Christian life.
What is mercy?
Despite being tossed about freely throughout Christendom, the term mercy is somewhat nebulous. Just when we think we’ve grasped it, it squirts out from between our fingers like mercury from a broken thermometer. It’s often coupled with the term grace, but grace is most often associated with God’s undeserved favor, especially in relation to our salvation.
Mercy, on the other hand, is more often connected to the withholding of judgment. Micah 7:18 perfectly captures this. “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.”
Yet mercy is so much more than the punishment God (and man) withholds from sinners. The New Testament captures the merciful heart of God through Jesus as it splashes out, over, and through people.
According to Biblestudytools.com,
The great Acts of mercy shown by God to the people of Israel found intimate expression in the ministry of Christ. The pattern he set, however, was not a new one, for he simply worked out the mercy of God at the human level. This is seen most clearly in his acts of healing. Cleansed of the legion of demons, the healed man is told to return home and declare the mercy that God has shown to him (Mark 5:19). The man had received from God without even asking. . . . Mercy was manifested in practical help, not simply in a consoling message that God was sympathetic with their plight.
We don’t have Jesus’ ability to heal, nor can we be an instrument of divine salvation, so how are we to extend mercy? And what is its foundation?
What does mercy look like in the life of the believer?
Luke 10:30-37 gives us a picture of mercy at its finest. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus described a traveler who fell into the hands of thieves. Beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead, he was without hope. Three travelers passed by, but only one stopped—a despised Samaritan. This kind man demonstrated three qualities of mercy:
Sympathetic Awareness. “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him” (Luke 10:33). He not only saw the man’s plight, like the Levite and priest who had passed by before him, but he looked on the man with sympathy. Instead of hardening his heart to his needs, he connected on an emotional level. But then he took it a step further.
Active Involvement. “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (v. 34). We’re often touched by sad stories of homeless people, abused children, and neglected animals. Our heart tugs whenever we read about millions in the 10/40 window dying without hearing the gospel or of people living without Bibles, clean water, or medical care. But our involvement often stops there. The Samaritan, however, not only sympathized with the traveler’s plight, he expended time, energy, and resources to help.
Long term commitment. “The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (v. 35). Many would have considered their duty complete once they had cared for the traveler’s immediate needs, but the Samaritan’s mercy followed through to the end. By committing to the long term recovery of his charge, he demonstrated the Christlike qualities of enduring love and sacrificial giving.
Mrs. Josie is a 90-year-old woman in my church. Orphaned as a child, she grew up in a children’s home. A Sunday school group from a nearby town committed to provide clothing for her. “Every season they would send me new clothes and shoes,” she recounts. “Instead of feeling like a ‘poor orphan,’ I felt like a queen.” After she graduated from high school and entered her training in the World War II nurses’ corps, they bought her first set of uniforms. Like the Good Samaritan, they met her long-term needs with generosity and faith.
How can we cultivate a merciful spirit?
A merciful spirit begins with an accurate understanding of the mercy God has shown to us. When we fully grasp the depths of our sinfulness and what our lives could be like apart from God’s mercy, then we can extend that mercy toward others. The apostle Paul demonstrated this awareness in his letter to Timothy.
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,” [he wrote,] “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief . . . But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:13, 16).
We struggle to extend mercy when we fail to understand that the only thing that separates us from the vilest sinner is God’s mercy. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).
Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this troubled world. We must share the gospel through words, but also through deeds. The greatest demonstrations of mercy we can perform are acts of kindness toward those least able to repay us. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
It is when we extend mercy toward others that we are most like the God who extended mercy toward us.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Lori Hatcher is a pastor’s wife who lives delightfully close to her three grandkids in Lexington, South Carolina. She shares five-minute devotions for women in her book and blog, Hungry for God . . . Starving for Time (www.LoriHatcher.com).