How Can I Be More Merciful?
Luke 18:13 - But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
Mercy is a quality of character that allows us to overlook or find a way to cover over an offense or a wrong. It is often paired with grace, which takes the next step of showing love, kindness or favor to someone in spite of that wrong. The Bible often speaks of them together or of one as representative of both of them together (which is what I will be doing in this post). Mercy by definition is undeserved, and impossible to be earned.
The Bible is clear that Christians ought to be marked by an ability to show mercy. There are many reasons for this:
Ultimately, because God is marked by His mercy. God’s mercy is repeatedly highlighted in Scripture as one of his essential attributes (Exodus 33:19, 34:6). God would not be God if He were not merciful. As His creatures, made in His image, our purpose in life is to reflect who He is - this includes His mercy.
Because God’s law repeatedly commands mercy. The law of God is replete with commands to show mercy to strangers & foreigners, widows, orphans, and the poor (Exodus 22:16-23:9, Leviticus 19:9-18, 25:1-55, Deuteronomy 24:5-25:4). These commands are echoed in the wisdom of Proverbs & Job, and they are used by the prophets as well as Jesus to condemn Israel for their unmerciful treatment of others (Isaiah 1:11-17, 58:1-14, Amos 5:18-24, 6:1-8, Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 23:1-36, 25:31-46).
Because Jesus commands his followers to show mercy. When challenged by a lawyer to define which neighbors we must love as ourselves in order to fulfill the law, Jesus flips his question around and asks him which person in the parable of the good Samaritan “proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer acknowledged [sheepishly, I imagine], “The one who showed him mercy.” To this concession Jesus commanded “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-35). The Apostles pick up on this command throughout the New Testament, but probably nowhere more than in the book of James, where he says “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.” (James 2:15-16)
Because we have all received mercy. If we are alive and breathing, then we are recipients of God’s mercy. By showing mercy to Adam & Eve instead of killing humanity in its infancy immediately following the fall, He has shown mercy to everyone (Genesis 2:17). Furthermore, God continues to sustain all life by the power of His word so that the only reason you just drew a breath is because He allowed you by His creation-sustaining, merciful power (Colossians 1:16-17). Even further, for Christians, God has lavishly poured out his mercy on us through our Savior Jesus Christ, through whom we have forgiveness of sins, adoption into the family of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, new hearts, and eternity guaranteed with our Father (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Much of this is readily acknowledged by most Christians, but for some reason we find it ridiculously hard to be merciful, and rightly so, because true mercy is beyond the power of human will or strength to live out. So then, how can we fulfill our created purpose? How can we obey the command of our Lord and Savior? How can we become merciful? Is it even possible?
Yes!! It is possible to grow in our ability to show true mercy. But it is only possible if we see ourselves rightly. Only those who see themselves as desperately needing, and joyously receiving free mercy can really show mercy to others. If we see ourselves as deserving or earning even a microgram of God’s mercy, then we show we don’t even understand what mercy is, and we ensure our inability to share it with anybody else. The moment any thought of what is deserved enters a situation, mercy will vanish.
So how do we learn to see ourselves rightly? Practice the prayer of the repentant tax collector - “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Practice it daily. Practice it hourly. Practice it until we finally understand we have nothing we deserve, nothing we can earn from God or from anyone except wrath and punishment. Until we understand that our only hope, our only plea is God’s great mercy. Until we see God’s mercy as life itself, as a fountain of joy, hope, and peace that we drink from daily.
And then, having been filled by His mercy, and only then, will we become truly merciful.
Thy mercy my God is the theme of my song, the joy of my heart, and the boast of my tongue. Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last, hath won my affection and bound my soul fast. - John Stocker