Saturday, January 26, 2008

Meditations on Mercy

Not long ago, someone asked me "how can I pray for you today?" I thought about it for a minute or so, and simply replied "pray that I might be more merciful." This is one of "those" areas in which I know I lack, and it has bothered me for some time. its not as if I'm completely without mercy ever, its just that I'm not as merciful as I know I should be (and desire to be) and that bothers me enough to want to have more opportunities to be merciful, and be mindful of it.

The dictionary defines mercy this way:

compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one's power; compassion, pity, or benevolence

The Bible defines it this way:

eleos: kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them

When I read those two definitions I noticed that in the first, mercy is defined more as an attitude (implying a tolerance or in a sense "putting up with" those in need) and in the second its defined as not just attitude but coupled with action. While its certainly a good thing to have a merciful attitude and a tolerance, its a better thing to be merciful in word and deed as well.

When I hear this word the first verse that comes to mind is this one:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.(Matthew 5:7)

Followed by this one:

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.(Luke 18:13)

In the first verse mercy is defined in the context of men towards men, and in the second verse its a plea for God to extend His mercy toward an unworthy sinner. Some years ago I heard someone explain the difference between grace and mercy in this way:

Grace is not getting what we do deserve, and mercy is getting what we don't deserve.
In the strict context of salvation this quite accurate. By His grace we're spared from His wrath, and due to His mercy we're counted justified in Christ. Its all of Him, and not because of any works we could ever hope to do. This mercy in the eternal sense of our souls, is something that is beyond my ability to really address adequately in mere words. I know that in me is absolutely nothing that "deserves" the reward of eternal life. God's mercy is extended to me based on what Christ did on the cross, and His righteousness is what I cling to. Indeed I do not deserve what I have, and that only makes me more thankful that I have it at all.

As I considered mercy in the context of men toward men however, I kept going back to the definition of the most common use of the word in Scripture. In this case its the word eleos and while I am not an expert in Greek grammar, it is clear from the use in Scripture that being merciful is definite action, not just an attitude or a sense of compassion.

So the question that was left for me after considering this, and reading selected verses of Scripture on mercy was this:

Is "merciful" a word that defines my character? It was a scathing question and one I was rather uncomfortable answering.

It struck me especially after this past week when I had my very frightening accident on the icy roads, that mercy is something I expect from God because I know Him to be faithful. It never once entered my mind as I prayed that He might not be merciful to me, but I prayed in full assurance that He would indeed show mercy on me in that situation. Mercy, and being merciful is defintely one of the attributes of God, and every Christian knows that. There is rarely a day that goes by that in my daily prayers His mercy doesn't come to mind. In the course of nearly every day, something obvious occurs that demonstrates the mercy of God on either myself or someone close to me. In reality, His mercy is displayed in even the smallest most overlooked events in the course of each day.

In that vein I had to question myself once again and ask "is mercy or being merciful something that others expect of me, because they know me to be faithful in extending mercy?" Again, the answer I had to honestly deal with was not one that I was happy with.

There are ample opportunities each day for me to be merciful, in the context of showing kindness and compassion and offering help to those who are in need. Those who are in need are not just the miserable and afflicted in the strict sort of medical or emotional sense of the words - but they can be those who are unsaved and perfectly content in that state (as many of us were deceived to be content in that state). Those in need can also be my children or my husband. They can be people in my church, people I know I online, or someone I come across at the grocery store. They can also be people that I know that I strongly disagree with, or that quite frankly just get on my last nerve and drive me to monumental frustration.

If being merciful can be defined as having compassion for and kindness towards those in need, combined with a desire to be a help to them - then the opposite of merciful would have to be apathy or unkindness with no desire to help at all. I am not proud to admit that there are times when that is exactly how I feel towards certain people and/or situations. Other times I feel a sort of combination of maybe feeling compassionate but no real desire to help. This is definitely not something I like but its an honest assessment of my character when it comes to being merciful.

I recently finished Jerry Bridges' Respectable Sins, and this post is a result of the deep thinking and daily prayer that has occured after reading the book. These are things that the Lord had been bringing to my thoughts for some time now, so the timing of the book making its way into my hands was without question in my mind, purely God's providence.

I am thankful that the Lord orchestrates events and circumstances that allow us the opportunity to be tested, and to further our sanctification. Sometimes they're painful, sometimes they're scary and sometimes we might feel like we've failed with flying colors, but the truth of the matter is that these are good things, and will cause us to seek His wisdom and guidance all the more.

And He gives it, because we are indeed those who are miserable, and afflicted.