Nearly all of us are familiar with “Murphy’s law,” and some of us may even believe it: “Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you expect. And if anything can go wrong, it will . . . at the worst possible moment.” Murphy seems to have suggested some corollaries to his law. One is that everything you decide to do costs more than first estimated. Another is that if you improve or tinker with something long enough, eventually it will break. Still another—the light at the end of the tunnel will probably turn out to be the headlamp of an approaching freight train. If you were to boil down the essence of Murphy’s law and all its corollaries into one terse statement it would probably be this: “Life is miserable and nothing is going to turn out right.”
Joseph L Felix wrote a humorous exposition of Murphy’s law from a spiritual perspective and called it, Lord, Have Murphy!2 The title is appropriate because it makes us think about a cry heard from the lips of miserable people all through the gospel records, “Lord, have mercy!” Mercy has a direct relationship to misery. Nobody seems to know exactly who Murphy was, but whoever he was, he did not seem to know much about God’s mercy.
Murphy is not alone. Few people understand mercy. What is it? I have asked that question of a number of people and the most common response I get is a blank stare. The word is used literally hundreds of times in the Bible, and most of us have read it over and over again. But it is one of those concepts that we find difficult to put into words. The Psalmist said, “Our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5 KJV). What did He mean? What is God’s mercy?
Nowhere is the essence of mercy unveiled for us any more clearly than in our Lord’s parable of the good Samaritan. The victim in that story was miserable. He had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite in the story showed no concern for him whatsoever. “But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion” (Luke 10:33). The word most often translated “mercy” in the King James Version conveys strong feelings of pity, sympathy, compassion, and affection. The Old Testament word is sometimes translated “lovingkindness” in the King James, and nearly always so in the New American Standard, and that describes one important aspect of mercy. When God looks at suffering people, He feels love, tenderness, and kindness toward them in their need.
When we read that God is merciful or that He has mercy, we may be assured that He is feeling our misery just as intensely as we are. As the writer to the Hebrews taught us, the reason we can come boldly to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need is because the occupant of that throne is a merciful high priest who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15-16). Those feelings are the foundation of His mercy.
But mercy does not stop with tender feelings. It acts to relieve the misery. In our Lord’s parable, the Samaritan “came to [the victim], and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you’” (Luke 10:34-35). The Samaritan’s compassionate feelings led him to a practical demonstration of kindness, concrete actions which were intended to relieve the man’s misery and distress.3 When Jesus asked which one of the three passersby was the true neighbor to the victim, the lawyer to whom He was speaking answered immediately, “The one who showed mercy toward him” (verse 37). He used that term mercy to sum up those feelings of steadfast love which were followed by helpful acts of kindness.
Because God is full of mercy, He acts to relieve our distress. Psalm 136 is a good place to see some of the merciful things He does. The whole psalm magnifies God’s mercy. Every one of its twenty-six verses tells us something about God, then concludes, “for His mercy endureth for ever” (KJV). First His goodness is mentioned, then His acts of creation, then His relationship with His people Israel. He delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors (verses 10-12). He took them safely through the Red Sea (verses 13-15). He led them through the wilderness (verse 16). He gave them victory over powerful kings who threatened to destroy them (verses 17-20). He brought them at last into their promised land (verses 21 22). But the Psalmist gets to the heart of God’s mercy in the next two verses. God remembered them in their low estate, in their miserable and humiliating condition, and He delivered them (verses 23-24). Mercy is God’s tender compassion toward us in our distress that causes Him to act on our behalf and relieve our suffering, at the time and in the manner which He knows will be best.
It might be profitable for us to compare grace and mercy since they are such closely related terms. Both offer us help, but grace emphasizes assistance for the undeserving while mercy emphasizes relief for the unfortunate. Grace describes God’s attitude toward guilty lawbreakers and rebels, while mercy describes His attitude toward those who are suffering and distressed. The first letter of each word helps us remember the distinction: grace for the guilty, mercy for the miserable.
The same sins that make us guilty, however, also cause us most of our misery. So God must deal with our sin problem before He can relieve our distress. That is why we find both His grace and His mercy involved in providing our salvation: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Mercy comes first in the mind of God. He loved us so much and cared about us so intensely in our miserable condition that in grace He sent His Son to die in our place. Mercy motivates His actions. But in the application of salvation to our lives the order is reversed. Only after we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation does He begin to alleviate the misery which our sin has caused us. We receive His grace, then we enjoy His mercy. That explains why grace precedes mercy in every one of the apostolic salutations where both words appear (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 John 3).
One reason we can enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life is because our God is rich in mercy. The Apostle Paul put it, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5). We are called vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23), containers into which God has poured His mercy. And now that God has saved us, He continues to extend to us His mercy. Jeremiah said His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Even better than waking up to the delectable aroma of fresh pastries hot out of the oven, accompanied by the tantalizing smell of fresh coffee brewing, we wake up to a fresh supply of God’s mercy when we open our eyes to greet each new day. He is there to meet us and to help us through our difficult times.
Unfortunately we do not always recognize God’s mercies. Somehow it seems easier to focus on our misery and misfortune than on God’s mercy. The people of Israel had that problem. God had promised David in a solemn covenant that His mercy would never depart from David’s family (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Solomon referred to that promise shortly after he became king (1 Kings 3:6; 2 Chronicles 1:8), and again in his prayer dedicating the temple (2 Chronicles 6:42). The promise is the subject of Psalm 89, where mercy is mentioned seven times. In the last mention of the word, the Psalmist asks,
Where are Thy former lovingkindnesses, O Lord,
Which Thou didst swear to David in Thy faithfulness? (Psalm 89:49)
We all feel that way at times: “Lord, where are all the mercies You promised me? All I can see are the problems.” I must admit, there are weeks when I am personally convinced that Murphy was right after all, nothing is going to turn out right. When we feel like that, we need to turn to a passage like Psalm 103 and begin to count our blessings.
Bless the LORD, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities; Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit; Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle. The LORD performs righteous deeds, And judgments for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel (Psalm 103:1-7).
These multiplied benefits are the evidences of God’s loving kindness (verse 4), that is, His mercy. If we cannot relate to anything else in the psalm, we can certainly appreciate the aspect of God’s mercy which the Psalmist describes in the next few verses.
It has been said that God’s grace gives us the favor that we do not deserve, while His mercy holds back the judgment that we do deserve. That may not be the major difference between the two terms, but there does seem to be an element of truth in it.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness (Psalm 103:8).
The subject here again is God’s super-abounding supply of mercy. Notice how it causes Him to act toward us:
He will not always strive with us;
Nor will He keep his anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities (verses 9-10).
God’s mercy restrains Him from giving us what our sins deserve.
This concept is found in other passages of Scripture as well. When Moses pleaded with God to forgive the people rather than destroy them after their exhibition of unbelief at Kadesh-barnea, he made that request on the basis of God’s great mercy (Numbers 14:19). When Daniel prayed for forgiveness for his people, it was on the basis of God’s mercy (Daniel 9:4,9). Jeremiah probably made it clearer than anyone else when he boldly declared, “It is [because] of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed” (Lamentations 3:22 KJV).
Some people say, “I don’t want any favors from God. I just want what I deserve.” People like that really do not understand what they are saying. The human heart is filled with maliciousness, covetousness, selfishness, pride, envy, strife, adulteries, lies, blasphemies, and every form of wickedness. If we got what we deserved we would feel the fury and sting of all God’s righteous wrath against sin. It is not justice we need, but mercy—the compassion that shows forbearance when justice demands punishment. If a criminal is found guilty, justice calls for a sentence to be pronounced. The best the convicted felon can hope for is that the judge will suspend the sentence, hold back the penalty he deserves.
God does exactly that. We have been judged guilty. Yet, the Psalmist reveals:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:11-12).
What magnificent mercy! God looks on us hell-deserving sinners with compassion, sympathizes with us in our plight, then proceeds to remove our transgressions from us as far as our minds can imagine.
Some may protest, “Well, if God’s mercy is so great, why doesn’t He save everybody?” His mercy is reserved for those who fear Him (verse 11), a term that signifies reverential trust. He will not force His mercy on us any more than He will force His grace on us. If we choose to resist Him and spurn His offer of mercy, He will permit us to have justice instead. He asks us to acknowledge our need, then cast ourselves in simple faith upon the divine court for mercy.
For those people who have become the special objects of His mercy, to whom He has extended His merciful salvation, whose debt of sin He has canceled, and upon whom He showers His daily mercies, His mercy takes on yet another dimension.
This truth is revealed in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. He owed his master the sum of ten million dollars. We are not told how he incurred a debt of such magnitude, but it is obvious that on a servant’s salary of a few cents a day he could never repay it. He was in a miserable predicament. Yet, foolish as it seems, he thought he could somehow pay back the debt, and so he begged for an extension of time: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matthew 18:26). Jesus went on to say, “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (verse 27). That was mercy. First there was the intense feeling of sympathy, followed by an unprecedented act of kindness in which the master held back the punishment he could have exacted and forgave the servant the entire debt, more than he ever could have expected. What a beautiful illustration of mercy!
Yet the poor servant never seemed to grasp the significance of what had happened to him. In fact, it seems as though he never even heard that his debt was wiped out. He went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a mere twenty dollars, took him by the throat and demanded payment. When the fellow servant could not pay, he required the full extent of the law and had him thrown in jail. When the master heard what his servant had done, he was incensed. “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33)
The lesson is clear. We as believers have received an enormous measure of God’s mercy. We have been forgiven a debt of sin we could never repay and we have been blessed with daily mercies we can never number. Now God wants us to show the same kind of mercy to others, to have the same tender feelings of sympathy toward them in their misery, the same eagerness to minister to them and help them in their times of distress, the same willingness to hold back retribution and to forgive them when they wrong us. To do anything less reveals that we have little understanding of the immense debt of sin from which we have been released. To be stern and exacting, or to insist on getting even with those who have injured us, exposes a heart that has no concept of its own degradation. When we understand the depths of our own sin and the enormity of God’s mercy in forgiving us, we will freely forgive every evil committed against us, great or small.
The prophet Micah reminded God’s Old Testament people of this responsibility. He extolled God’s mercy when he said, “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18 KJV). But he also made the application to the lives of the people. “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8 KJV) People who know a merciful God should love mercy. Do we love mercy? Do the needs of other people move us to compassion? Do we have a desire to help relieve human suffering?
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day sadly failed the mercy test. Jesus accused them of insisting on every intricate detail of the law while ignoring the more important matter of mercy (cf. Matthew 12:7; 23:23). That could describe some of us as well. We may have long lists of precise rules we try to live by and sometimes force others to observe, yet be unmoved by the misery of other people. Those who have truly experienced God’s mercy want to show mercy to others.
I read of a woman at the check-out counter who had groceries which totaled four dollars more than she had in her purse. A stranger behind her relieved her embarrassment by motioning to the clerk to put the amount on his bill. He refused to give her his name so she could pay him back. A few days later the local newspaper reported that a charity had received a check for four dollars with a note which read: “This check is for the man who helped me out of a tight spot. I’m giving it to you as a ‘thank you’ to him.” When we understand what has been done for us, we want to reach out and do the same for others, just as that woman did.
God’s merciful heart aches over the misery which man’s sin has brought to the world. And when we get to know Him intimately, our hearts will ache as well. Not only will our hearts ache, but our arms will reach out, our homes will open up, our wallets will unfold, and we will find great joy in relieving some of the misery in this world. Our God is called “the Father of mercies” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Meditate on His mercy, and as you grow in His likeness, mercy will become an increasingly significant part of your daily life style. Then the beautiful shepherd psalm will take on new meaning for you: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (Psalm 23:6 KJV).
Describe what it means to you personally that God is merciful.
List some specific things you can do to show mercy to others. Now begin to do at least one of them today.