A Heart of Mercy
The Sermon on the Mount begins with what is known as the Beatitudes. These are a list of blessings that result from having proper attitudes of the heart. We might think of them as the “be attitudes”; attitudes that we should have as believers. They were pronounced for the children of God, so we are meant to experience them.
By naming the blessings that come from possessing certain characteristics, the Beatitudes give insight into the character of God. They also reveal how the followers of Christ are to behave. By developing these characteristics, we can enhance our relationship with God and with one another.
One of these characteristics is mercy. The blessing for extending it is found in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” As with the other Beatitudes, we may possess a measure of this characteristic before salvation—we may be able to do some merciful acts on our own. However, it is God’s Spirit within us which gives the power to extend unconditional mercy, no matter the circumstance, as Stephen did to those who were in the act of stoning him (Acts 7:60). To be truly merciful, God must transform us into merciful people. This work begins at salvation, but then it is up to us to nurture this attitude and develop it in order to obtain the blessing. We must apply ourselves to being merciful.
In taking a closer look at mercy in general, and God’s mercy specifically—how it is obtained and how it transforms the recipient—we will gain insight into the blessing of mercy for ourselves and others.
What is mercy?
When we consider what mercy is in a general sense, we might contrast it with justice. Justice is when someone receives what they deserve. Mercy is when someone receives or extends leniency. Another definition for mercy is: “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” A judge would show mercy by giving someone a lighter sentence than is warranted. One example is that of a mother who pled earnestly with a judge to show mercy to her son, whom she knew was guilty. When the judge refused to lighten the sentence, saying the son did not deserve it, the mother replied, “But Sir, if he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.”
What is God’s mercy?
We can never earn salvation, nor can we deserve His mercy.
Forgiveness is a form of mercy, because justice demands that there be a punishment for wrongdoing. Justice was satisfied and mercy was extended at the Cross. In Ezekiel 18:20 we read that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” God’s holy and just nature could not allow evil to go unpunished; justice had to be satisfied for the sins of mankind. However, instead of allowing sinners to die an eternal death, God’s love stepped in. God is infinitely loving and merciful; those attributes are part of His nature. So what did He do? He extended mercy to the whole world by sending His Son to die for humanity. Mercy and compassion were the driving force behind Christ’s coming to this world, His death, and His resurrection. Titus 3:5 says, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” We are saved by His mercy, not by our good deeds. We can never earn salvation, nor can we deserve His mercy.
How mercy is received
Though God’s mercy is offered freely to all, we must do something to receive it. The prophet Joel gave us a picture of how it is obtained. He wrote, “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:13). The key words in this verse are “rend your heart” and “turn.” We can receive God’s forgiveness if we come before Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, recognizing our spiritual poverty and that we are bankrupt without God. We could never pay the debt that is owed to God, but He made a way so that we do not have to. Because He was moved with compassion, He sent His Son to die for us. To obtain mercy, we must come before God, recognizing that our own sins nailed Jesus to the Cross. We must tell God how sorry we are and repent, turning away from our sins, and turning toward God. When we do this with an honest heart, because God is merciful, He cannot help but forgive.
We see God’s mercy demonstrated and received in the Book of Jonah concerning the city of Nineveh. God sent Jonah to declare judgment. In response to the message, the people of Nineveh began to fast and pray, turning from their evil ways. God saw their honest hearts, their true repentance, and as a result, He showed them mercy, sparing them.
The effects of God’s mercy on a life
When God’s mercy results in salvation, it produces a transformation. There is no more powerful prayer than the one found in Luke 18:13, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Two men went to the Temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee, a religious man, but he was more concerned about what other people were doing than his own condition. He said, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (verse 11). The other man, the publican or tax collector, stood afar off, and “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” He did not try to defend himself, because he knew he was guilty. He had sinned against God, and he recognized his need for mercy.
Conviction is a blessing, because it helps us realize and dread that justice is deserved.
Conviction is a blessing, because it helps us realize and dread that justice is deserved. It brings us to the place where we can say as this publican did, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” When we rend our hearts and tell God we are sorry, confessing our sins, He extends mercy and forgives us. Of the two men, the publican “went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (verse 14). God’s mercy instantly transformed this man. He came to the Temple guilty and condemned, and he went home justified. Similarly, this is where our relationship with God begins.
When we receive God’s grace and mercy at salvation, we are changed. We go from death to life, from being selfish to selfless, from being prideful and harmful to being meek and gentle. God also makes us merciful people. He gives us a heart that loves mercy.
An example of one who was instantly transformed by God’s mercy is Zacchaeus, whose account is found in Luke 19. Before Zacchaeus met Jesus, he was a wicked, crooked man. As a tax collector, he was known to have cheated and robbed people. He was someone to avoid. According to those around him, he was the last person Jesus should have been seen with. Though Jesus knew what kind of man he was, Scripture tells us that when He came to the tree where Zacchaeus had climbed, he said, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house” (verse 5). Zacchaeus sensed mercy. He “made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully” (verse 6). When we receive mercy, it causes us to have a sense of gratitude and appreciation for what God has done. Zacchaeus experienced this. Immediately, he said he would pay back much more than what he had wrongly taken. He became merciful. He went from taking advantage of people, destroying lives, and being deceitful, to wanting to repay, repair, and restore. That is what God’s mercy does in one’s heart. It transforms even the unmerciful like Zacchaeus into someone who loves mercy.
To love mercy as God does, we must have a heart that is transformed. Colossians 3:12 says “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.” God can make us the compassionate and merciful people He intends us to be. This is not something we can accomplish in our own strength.
God’s mercy manifested through us
Not only is God merciful, but He expects His people to be merciful, too. As Christians, we are called to extend mercy to others. God’s Word is clear that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. A portion of the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6, addresses this. It says, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (verse 12). It also says, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (verses 14-15). God’s forgiveness and mercy are extended to us on the condition that we extend them to others.
When we are merciful, the love of Jesus shines through us to humanity.
There is more to extending mercy than committing random acts of kindness. Micah 6:8 says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee . . .” God does not ask much of us in comparison to the grace and the mercy He has extended to us, but He does ask something of us: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” We are to love mercy. Everyone loves to receive mercy, but God wants us to love giving mercy. When we are merciful, the love of Jesus shines through us to humanity.
To the Jewish people, the word “mercy” signified two things: almsgiving and pardon from injuries. Jesus taught both: giving and forgiving. When someone wrongs us, there is an opportunity to exhibit mercy, because we are under no obligation to forgive. The temptation might be to show justice or give the person what they deserve, but our attitude should be one of mercy. God works through people who are merciful.
Paul said in Romans 12:17-19, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Let God be the avenger; He will handle the situation in the best way possible. Our desire never should be for God to punish someone. Instead, it should be to see everyone experience God’s mercy. Continuing with verse 20, Paul explained how: “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” This is not speaking of a desire to see an adversary punished. Rather, it shows hope that God will use the mercy we show to produce a purifying effect in the hearts of our enemies.
Where else do we extend mercy? The Bible is very practical. We extend mercy to the poor who are in need by sharing our possessions with them. We show mercy to the ignorant by instructing them, to the careless by warning them, and to the inconsiderate by being patient. Smile at the person who is unfriendly. Forgive the frustrating driver on the road. Bear each other’s idiosyncrasies.
Being merciful and compassionate does not mean having no position regarding what is right and wrong.
Mercy, however, is not to excuse or accommodate sin. We live in an age where society promotes tolerance of everything except holy and righteous living. Being merciful and compassionate does not mean having no position regarding what is right and wrong. It doesn’t mean that we pretend sin is not present or that we accept sin. In John 8:3-11 the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been taken in adultery. “When they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” Justice would demand that the woman be punished, and the punishment was stoning. However, Jesus responded with, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” We often see the faults of others more readily than we see our own. The men were each convicted of their own sins, and so dropped their stones and left. Jesus then said to the woman, “Where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?” She answered, “No man, Lord.” And He told her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” Jesus had mercy on this woman and forgave her with the direction that she go and sin no more. Likewise, we are to be compassionate, but we are not called to compromise our integrity. We stand for righteousness and holiness.
Receive the blessing
God wants to bless us with His mercy, and He wants to see that mercy extended through us to our loved ones, our church family, our business associates, our neighbors, and our fellow students. It begins with us experiencing God’s mercy, and continues with our determination to treat people better than they deserve. If we do this, God will bless us, and make us a blessing to others.