Chapter 3

The Mercy of God

Pastor and author Robert Gelinas points out in his book The Mercy Prayer that there is one prayer prayed more often than any other in the Bible: “Lord, have mercy.” This prayer, known in liturgical churches as the Kyrie Eleison, prompted Gelinas to pen a “mercy prayer” of his own:

For those who sin and those who suffer,
For those who suffer because of sin.
For those who sin to alleviate their suffering,
Lord, have mercy on us.

What is the mercy of God for which we pray? First of all, mercy seems to be one of the truly defining characteristics of God in the Scriptures. In God’s own self-description given to Moses on Mount Sinai, we read:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth . . . . (exodus 34:6 nasb)

The Lord … merciful. This powerful virtue is worthy of our consideration, as it, in a sense, pictures so much of God’s dealings with his wayward and rebellious creation.

So, then, what is the mercy of God?

The Dictionary of Bible Themes echoes Gelinas’s prayer and its important focus on the problem of sin, defining mercy as: “A quality of compassion, especially as expressed in God’s forgiveness of human sin. Scripture stresses God’s forbearance towards sinners. In his mercy, God shields sinners from what they deserve and gives gifts that they do not deserve.”

The last sentence of that definition is especially vital because it describes a two-sided mercy that both shields and gives. The “giving” side of mercy is similar to the New Testament concept of grace, wherein God gives us the love, forgiveness, restoration, and relationship we do not deserve and could never earn.

Perhaps this is why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews used God’s mercy (and grace) as a motivator for our prayers:

Therefore let’s approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace for help at the time of our need. (hebrews 4:16)

The other side of the definition of mercy, however, seems to be more the focus of the Scriptures: “God shields sinners from what we deserve.” Very early in my faith journey I heard it said that grace is getting what we don’t deserve while mercy is not getting what we do deserve. God’s mercy restrains judgment. One example of this restraining mercy of God is seen in the Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah during a time of national crisis.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (lamentations 3:22–23 nkjv)

Jeremiah’s lamentations were written at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah, having drifted far from God and embracing the gods of the nations, was undergoing a national season of divine discipline—but Jeremiah still glimpsed reason for hope. He saw the mercy of God as limiting the extent of that discipline so they “are not consumed” (v. 22). There, mercy is clearly described as holding back consequences.

Little wonder then that David in many of his lament psalms appeals to God for his mercy (psalms 4:1; 6:2, 9; 25:6; 28:2, and many more). Though described as a man after God’s heart (1 samuel 13:14), David was nevertheless a deeply flawed and broken person who experienced tragic and painful consequences for his sins. Even for the great king and psalmist, mercy was the response from God that he most longed for.

Additionally, Paul’s New Testament letter to Titus saw God’s mercy as integral to our salvation as he wrote:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy. (titus 3:4–5 nasb)

Again, this statement about our spiritual rescue contains both sides of the coin of God’s character. Salvation is all of grace because it is “not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness” but it is out of his mercy to spare us from the judgment our sin deserves. This caused the apostle Peter to exult:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 peter 1:3 nasb)

“To His great mercy” is a phrase that should stir us to respond to him with our whole hearts. So then, how are we to respond to the God who deals with us in mercy, rather than giving us what we deserve? A few biblical challenges will be helpful here:

  • We can respond to God’s mercy by yielding our lives to him for his work and service: “Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (romans 12:1 nasb)
  • We can bless and praise God for his mercies: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” (2 corinthians 1:3 nasb)
  • We can convey God’s mercy to others by reflecting his heart and spirit: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (luke 6:36 nasb)

In the concluding psalm of Book Two of the psalms, Ethan the Ezrahite offers us a response that could be as constant as our breathing. He wrote:

I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever;
With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations. (psalm 89:1 nkjv)

Like Jeremiah in Lamentations, Ethan links together God’s wonderful mercy and his great faithfulness. God’s mercy prevents us from being consumed by the consequences of our wrongdoings and wrong choices, giving us much reason for praise and much reason for worship. We do well to remember that God’s mercy is not merely an element of our past conversion. It is to be a significant part of our ongoing walk of faith so that in moments of failure and loss, despair and grief, shame and guilt, we can go to the Father of mercies and pray for ourselves and for those around us:

For those who sin and those who suffer,
For those who suffer because of sin.
For those who sin to alleviate their suffering,
Lord, have mercy on us.