What is mercy and why does God give it to me?
A few days ago, a couple from Costa Rica came to visit my wife and I. One of the sites we took them to was Montreat College, a Christian school on a small lake surrounded by the North Carolina mountains.
We picnicked beside a creek and visited the Chapel of the Prodigal. Inside the chapel is a large fresco depicting the prodigal son being lovingly received by his father upon his return. Perhaps no other passage in the Bible better illustrates God’s mercy than this parable in Luke 15:11-32.
A PIcture of God’s Mercy
In this story, a father has two sons. The youngest asks his father for his share of the estate, then moves to a distant country where he squanders everything away. Destitute, he finds a job doing the most despicable work a Jew can do — feeding pigs.
Finally, starving and totally broken, the younger son decides to return to his father and beg him to make him one of his hired men. In doing so, he would be admitting he’s unworthy to be called his son.
But while the younger son still a long way off, his father runs to him and embraces him. At the house, the father dresses his son in fine clothing and puts together a feast in his honor because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).
Even though the son rebels against his father, when he returns, broken and repentant, his father joyfully has mercy on him. What a wonderful analogy how God the Father welcomes us home when we repent! In our sin, we’re like the young son squandering the life God has given us. But our Heavenly Father eagerly awaits our return and longs to welcome us in.
What Mercy Means for Us
Mercy is compassion that forbears punishment even when justice demands it. In the judicial system, granting clemency, which is another word for mercy, depends entirely on the will of the grantor, who doesn’t have to give a reason for granting it.
Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what we do deserve.
Mercy and grace are similar but not the same. Putting it simply, grace is getting what we don’t deserve and mercy is not getting what we do deserve. In the parable, the son doesn’t get the rejection he deserves. In Christ, neither do we.
God’s mercy is bountiful throughout the Bible:
- Hebrews 4:16 says because Jesus faced the same temptations we face (though He never gave in), we can approach “the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy.”
- Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”
- 1 Peter 2:10 reminds us, “now you have received mercy.”
- Psalm 116:1 reads, the Lord “heard my cry for mercy.”
- In Luke 1:67-79, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, says the Lord will give people the “knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God.”
- In 2 Samuel 24:14, when given a choice of punishment for a sin, David chooses to put it in God’s hands, not man’s hands, “for His mercy is great.”
- Titus 3:5 states, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy."
- In 1 Timothy 1:13, Paul says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy.”
Every one of us could make lists miles long of the mercies God has given us. But the greatest example of God’s mercy is Jesus paying our debt on the cross. Like in the parable, when we are truly repentant, God shows us mercy and welcomes us with open arms.
The Hebrew word for mercy also translates into love. Even when we stray, God loves us and yearns for us to repent so He can extend mercy.
God gives mercy lovingly and He wants us to do the same. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Later on, Jesus tells a religious leader to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7, Hosea 6:6).
Who can you show mercy to today?