God Is Merciful

God Is Merciful

A Poor Example of Mercy

Do any of you remember a game called “Mercy”? You stood facing your opponent, locked fingers, and tried to bend back each other’s fingers until one of you couldn’t stand the pain and cried out, “Mercy.” At that point you proved your superior strength and, hopefully, stopped hurting your opponent.

As you might imagine, this game was a lot less about mercy and compassion than it was about boys trying to hurt each other. My brother and I used to play this game, which was stupid because he was five years older than me. I think he enjoyed inflicting pain on me.

I bring up this game because today we are going to talk about one of the foundational aspects of God’s character – His mercy.

The problem is, when we talk about mercy, I think too many people think of God as being like my brother when he played Mercy with me. My brother had the choice to inflict pain, suffering and wrath on me, and he was pleased to do so until I cried out in pain. Sadly, many people see God as so uncaring that He only MIGHT show mercy as the result of many prayers or many cries for help.

But here’s the thing: God doesn’t wait for us to cry out before He shows us His loving kindness. Mercy isn’t an afterthought in His being. It is who He is and how He works. He leads with mercy, and then we have the choice in how we will respond. Let me explain.

The Problem of a Holy God and an Unholy Humanity

A couple of weeks ago, Larry taught about the holiness of God. He explained how God is perfect, without flaw, and completely righteous. That’s really good news because worshiping a God who is crooked, sneaky, and filled with flaws is illogical. For God to be God, He must be perfect in character and being.

The problem is, only God is perfectly holy. The Bible says all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. We all are imperfect, flawed, and broken. It’s the result of sin entering this world, and it means that while we worship a perfect God, we are FAR from perfect.

Even as we try to live holy lives as God commands, we still make mistakes and fall into old habits. We snap at our spouses, we gossip a little here, and we let a small lie slide there, and God sees those sins as completely intolerable to Him.

Since God is perfect and we are not, God has every right to destroy us when we sin. We see this time and time again in the Bible.

Almost immediately after God gives the Israelites His law, a man is caught picking up sticks for firewood on the Sabbath. The people follow the law God has just given them, the one that called for the community to stone the man to death.

When David and the Israelites capture the Ark of the Covenant from the enemy Philistines, they use a cart with wheels to bring it back. This was something God didn’t want. They were supposed to carry the Ark on long wooden poles. When the cart hits a bump, the Ark starts to tip. Someone reaches out and touches it to steady it. He dies on the spot.

This is not just in the Old Testament. In Acts 5, the Bible tells us that Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sell some property and give money to the new church, claiming it is 100% of the price they received for the land. But they have secretly held back some money for themselves. They die on the spot for lying to the Holy Spirit.

Understanding that dynamic, we can see that if God was ONLY holy – without other aspects of His character – we would all be doomed! We would all be just like Ananias and Sapphira. It would be just like the flood we read of in Genesis, when God wiped all humanity off the face of the earth except for Noah and his family. Remember, though, that at that time God promised never again to kill all living creatures (humans included) with a flood.

So here we are, with a holy God and unholy, imperfect people. While we may be trying to be holy like God, we’re never good enough on our own; and it is THIS situation that makes God’s MERCY so crucial to His character and to our survival.

Mercy Explained

When we talk about God’s mercy, we are dealing with two different words: Hesed in the Hebrew and Eleos in the Greek.

First, let’s look at Hesed. This Hebrew word, which has no perfect English equivalent, is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God and His actions toward humanity. The term connotes the notions of covenantal loyalty, faithfulness, kindness, goodness, mercy, love, and compassion. It is usually used to describe the action of a stronger person to help a weaker person – most frequently God helping His people in their time of need.

The New Testament, written in Greek, has a different word we translate as “mercy” – Eleos, used most often to describe the work of Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross to save us. Just like Hesed, Eleos describes an act of covenant love by a stronger being to save us weak vessels of sin from a lifetime apart from God.

In both the Old and New Testaments, we see over and over how God rescues His people: from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, from attacking nations, and – through the shedding of His own blood – from the penalty of sin. It is one of the most common themes in scripture, and we watch God demonstrate His mercy repeatedly as His beloved people fail in holiness. In its simplest form, it’s the demonstration of God’s goodness toward His chosen ones.

Mercy Doesn’t Always Look Like What We Expect.

The problem sinful humans make when considering the concept of God’s mercy is that – as we do with everything else on earth – we find ways to try to take advantage of it. We think that because God is merciful, we can do whatever we want in this life and be forgiven regardless of our actions. We believe God will always show mercy and help in our time of need.

The apostle Paul tells us not to test God in that way:

Romans 6:1-2 1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means!

This is where the tension between mercy and holiness lies. Yes, God’s mercy offers us forgiveness and protects us from His judgment. However, that does not give us license to live however we want while thinking, “It’s okay. God will overlook it.”

God is still holy, righteous, and just. If we continue to live apart from God’s desire and design, it is very possible His mercy might look different for us than just washing over our faults! You see, often, for our own good, God allows us to face the consequences of our sin. We see this in the Old Testament as God allows numerous invading nations to plunder the Israelites while they were worshiping other gods. Ultimately He allows the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and take the Israelites back to Babylon as captives.

The book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah after the Babylonians had burned the temple and destroyed Jerusalem, actually shows this dynamic quite clearly:

Lamentations 2:2-3Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of Daughter Judah. . . . He has withdrawn his right hand at the approach of the enemy.

Then, in the very next chapter we read:

Lamentations 3:22 – Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

Do you see how Jeremiah recognizes that God has removed His hand of protection and allowed all this destruction? Yet Jeremiah still sees the destruction as part of God’s Hesed (His loving kindness) because he trusts that God will not consume His people.

Let me add, this is a great parenting tip:

  • Allowing your children to face the natural consequences of their sins and mistakes is not cruel. It is a mercy if it is done with a heart that wants to see them learn, grow and mature.
  • Don’t let them destroy themselves. Intervene if you know they are driving around drunk every weekend; but if they are in trouble in school for their behavior, don’t run to the principal demanding a lighter sentence.
  • In loving commitment to your children, stand with them as they face the challenging consequences and point them to where you want them to go. That’s how God uses mercy to shape us, and we should follow His lead.]

As I’ve shown, it’s simplistic to look at these Old Testament stories and say, “God isn’t showing any mercy.” In His mercy He is using these massive consequences of ruin and captivity to capture His people’s attention and their hearts once again.

Has God perhaps done that same thing in your life? Maybe you have faced the uncomfortable consequences of your sin not because God gave up on you but because God is so committed to you that He is trying whatever it takes to capture you attention. His mercy may not look like what you imagine, but His loving kindness means He will do anything to bring you home.

Mercy is the Good News.

When we take a second look, we see that God’s holiness shows His perfection and proves we are unworthy. His mercy, on the other hand, makes a way for us to be reunited with Him.

God’s Hesed, His loving kindness and faithful compassion, is at the center of the Gospel. It is what allows an infinite, immutable, holy and perfect God to be with us. It is what pushed Him to send His Son as a sacrifice for all of us. It is why we are now washed clean from our sins by the blood the Son of God shed when He died on the cross. It is why we no longer owe the penalty of eternal death for our sins. God’s mercy offers us life!

The apostle Paul, describes our situation in the book of Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:3-5Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.

Do you see how, if God were not a merciful God, we would all be stuck in our sins and doomed to destruction away from His holy presence? Praise God His nature is that of mercy! As a result, every single person on this earth has the opportunity to be rescued from that fate. God chooses loving kindness and tries everything He can to draw us and woo us to Him. Sometimes it looks like saving us from our enemies, and sometimes – to get through our thick skulls – it looks like allowing us to be overtaken, yet not destroyed. Either way, we see a God who is faithfully looking out for our good. We see a God who is compassionately trying to help us and not hurt us. He is only waiting for us to cry out for mercy.

We are Called to be Merciful.

Now that I’ve shown you why a merciful God is crucial to our Christian beliefs, I want to show you how this makes a difference in how we live. Jesus teaches us that we are to represent this very aspect of God toward all people. Just as God shows us undeserved mercy before we ever ask, we are to do the same to others.

In His Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 5:7) Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Essentially, if you want to enjoy the mercy of God, extend that same mercy to others. It makes no sense to the world to hear that Christians worship a merciful God if we ourselves demonstrate no mercy to them. It makes a merciful God seem unbelievable. That’s why we need to be people of loving kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. As God has shown us, sometimes mercy means allowing consequences for sin.

Finally, we read the following challenging instruction:

Luke 6:35-3635But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Wow! That’s hard to live out! Yet that is exactly what we are commanded to do. Love tough people. Lend to them when you know they won’t ever pay it back. Show mercy. If we can live this out, it is one of our greatest methods of sharing the Gospel of Jesus to a dark world. People will wonder why we show mercy, and we can point them to the God of all mercy and grace.


I hope that after today you will think differently about mercy. I hope you will recognize that a God without mercy may be superior and perfect, but that wouldn’t be very good news to a flawed and imperfect humanity.

We worship a God who, while He has every right to judge us at the moment of our first sin, chooses to mercifully withhold judgment and save us from our sins and the consequences they deserve. And now we have the opportunity to model that same mercy to the imperfect and flawed people who live around us every single day. May we demonstrate that mercy and compassion with our actions and share the source of that mercy by our words.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *