“Happy are the merciful, because they will receive mercy” — Jesus (Matthew 5:7)
Mercy has always been one of Christianity’s chiefest virtues. Through proper definition and exercise of mercy (among other traits such as agape love, grace and forgiveness) early Christianity changed the spiritual and societal landscapes of entire ancient societies.
Mercy is first private, then public.
The transformation of society within the Roman empire was neither easy nor institutional, because authentic Christianity was at first, and ever after, a spiritual and relational movement. Societal change was the result of individually transformed lives who chose to live counter-culture generation after generation. There were many non-Christians in the ancient Roman world who viewed displays of mercy as signs of weakness. Thus, the accusation that Christianity is a crutch for the weak, invented by the weak, is no new ploy.
…in the ancient world mercy was a questionable virtue. Philosophers inclined to privilege reason over the emotions viewed mercy suspiciously because of its connection to pity, and the broader, honor-oriented culture of ancient society was dubious of displays of mercy as signs of weakness. Moreover, the ancient mind would have drawn no intrinsic connection between justice and the definition of mercy. Leniency based on considerations of equity could count as mercy. Even a cruel ruler choosing to be less cruel could count as merciful. The notion that mercy must involve going beyond justice was not central to classical thought. With the introduction of Christianity, by contrast, mercy takes on a central moral importance, both for God and for God’s people…
…From early on we see Christian thinkers jointly deploying the metaphors of the loving parent, the generous benefactor, the forgiving creditor, and the lenient judge not only as symbols of God’s mercy but also as normative for the ethical obligations of Christians. 1
Today, Christian mercy is largely misunderstood and ill-defined. As a result, and in my 32+ years experience, mercy is little practiced by Christians in their relationships and in their organizations, not to mention in “secular” public life. Have we Christians reverted to the mentality of the ancient pagans which says, “mercy is for the weak” and “no mercy for the weak”? As one will read further down, the exercise of mercy requires the greatest inner strength imaginable; and furthermore, only the humble–a trait not for those of weak character–can receive it.
The essence of mercy is the easing of another’s suffering.
If one wishes to study all of the biblical usages of mercy and its variants, please visit Lumina and enter a key word search, “Mercy.” Yet, there is perhaps no greater chapter in the Bible on mercy than Luke 18.
In that chapter, we see mercy in connection with the turning away of God’s wrath from one who knows he deserves judgement. Jesus “told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:”
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
“I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (NASB)
When the religious and “moral” view themselves as righteous and resultantly view others with contempt, Jesus warns it is only the humble who receive pardon when they ask, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”
To be clear, mercy is not forgiveness; but since the essence of mercy is the easing of suffering, then forgiveness may be the best way to show mercy, especially when the offender cannot atone for his own offenses. Mercy is a show of kindness by one who has it within his power & character to ease the suffering of another, whether the recipient deserves it or not. To show mercy is a choice that comes from being merciful. “Merciful” is a character trait, an attribute which has its origin in God. When God states, as he does to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15), then God describes it is both in his power and character to be merciful. This ought to produce hope.
As an aside, forgiveness is not grace. Forgiveness is the elimination of debt (ex. relational, spiritual, monetary). Grace finds definition in both God’s attitude (willingness) and ability to redeem us and make us like himself, despite our offenses against him.
Thankfully, God views our sinful condition and temptation as points of suffering. Because he is the Source and Standard of mercy, he chose to provide a judicially fair forgiveness by atoning for our sin in Jesus Christ. If one will but view temptation as a form of suffering, then Jesus arises as THE One who endured all to ease our suffering. Those who call upon the name of Jesus in humility will receive pardon from eternal judgment–an act of mercy from God (Rom. 10:13)–and rescue from their sinful nature (2 Cor. 5:17-19).
Secondly, in the 18th chapter of Luke, we read that mercy is the easing of another’s suffering–particularly one’s physical plight.
35 As Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging. 36 Now hearing a crowd going by, he began to inquire what this was. 37 They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. 38 And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet; but he kept crying out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to Him; and when he came near, He questioned him, 41 “What do you want Me to do for you?” And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight!” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”43 Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him, glorifying God; and when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God. (NASB)
The blind man believed it was within the power and character of Jesus to show mercy by healing his eyes. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he kept shouting. Jesus rewarded that faith by healing the man.
The essence of mercy is the easing of another’s suffering. Only the merciful can look on another with empathy and compassion, and like Jesus, exercise the power and character it takes to ease the plight of another–to provide a solution, even at one’s own expense and the risk of ingratitude and whether or not the recipient “deserves” it.
What good is mercy, if it is not shown?
If one considers himself to be merciful, what good is that mercy if it is not shown? Just as true faith (trust in God’s provided salvation) will necessarily lead one to display acts of kindness and generosity toward others (James 1:14-26), mercy claimed is no mercy unless shown. Just as C. S. Lewis points out that “everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive,” even so mercy is not simply a wonderful virtue to applaud; mercy is a thing to be exercised if it is to make a difference in the Christian’s private and public life. The difference between forgiveness and mercy is that forgiveness may be given only when a personal offense has occurred, whereas mercy may be given whenever one sees suffering (spiritual, mental, emotional, social, economic, educational or physical). Forgiveness is, then, an active response to something passively endured. However, mercy is always an active response to what others are helplessly enduring. The twin of mercy is compassion. Mercy shown (whether judicial or relational) serves only to grow one’s compassion and joy and–yes–happiness.
While I do not espouse the Catholic notion of sacramental works for saving grace, I must say that the “works of mercy” clearly show us how to show mercy.
Corporal (bodily) Mercies
- Feed the Hungry
- Give Drink to the Thirsty
- Clothe the Naked
- Visit the Imprisoned
- Shelter the Homeless
- Provide for the Orphaned and Widowed
- Visit the Sick
- Bury the Dead
Spiritual (inner) Mercies
- Instruct the Ignorant
- Counsel the Doubtful
- Admonish Sinners
- Comfort the Sorrowful
- Bear Wrongs Patiently
- Forgive all Injuries
- Pray for all Mankind
1 Tuckness, Alex and John M. Parrish. “Mercy as Charity in Augustine and Early Christian Thought”, The Decline of Mercy in Public Life. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 87-110. Cambridge Books Online. Web. 07 November 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107279315.006 [underscore mine]