Mercy? Me?

The game begins with the two combatants facing each other, holding hands, their fingers interlocked. When the word is given, they start twisting and writhing like contortionists, each trying to gain leverage over the other until their fingers are so agonised that one is forced to concede, “Mercy!” The winner graciously releases his grip, and the round is complete. In primary school, we called the game ‘Mercy’—but our grasp on the concept was as tortuous as the game itself.

A more serious mercy wrangle occurred in 2009 when the Lockerbie Bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was released from prison in Scotland. He was serving a life sentence for bringing down Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 people from 21 countries. However, after less than a decade in prison he was terminally ill, and the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, agreed to release him. He cited the values of compassion and mercy. An article in The Australian newspaper agreed that such values are “a cornerstone of civilisations founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic”, but then countered that, “so are justice and the rule of the law”. Where, it was asked, was mercy for the victims and their families?1

How can we answer this emotive kind of question? How can we decide between different ideas of mercy that seem to wrestle with each other like kids in the schoolyard? And what is mercy, exactly? Do we even know what kind of thing it is—a behaviour? An emotion? An action? A character trait?

I want to investigate these questions by looking at what the Bible says about mercy, and especially the categories of mercy the Bible throws up for us. Often we short-circuit our study of the Bible by intuiting our own categories and trying to mash various passages into them (I picture my three-year-old nephew trying to force a stuffed toy into his shape-sorter). So, instead of suggesting a definition of mercy up-front, I want to see how the Bible itself talks about mercy, distil those down to some major categories, and only then attempt a definition.2 In the midst of our spadework I’m also hoping that we’ll begin to see some practical ways of doing mercy—even before we grasp what mercy is.

Divine mercy

The first thing that jumps out at you about mercy in Scripture is that God’s mercy predominates. God’s mercy is the headline, and human mercy is the support act. This is the case in both Old and New Testaments, which each reflect back on their own definitive act of mercy.

Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the definitive mercy act is the Exodus. The children of Israel are in deep trouble: cruelly enslaved both by Pharaoh and their own sin, which sees them commit apostasy right in God’s face at Sinai (Exod 32). Yet in the very next chapter God generously renews his promise to lead them to their promised land. And he confirms this intention to Moses by promising a glorious revelation:

And [the Lord] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exod 33:19)

So the content of God’s goodness and glory is his mercy to an undeserving people. But this is just an intimation of his mercy; its full-bodied shape is revealed in the next chapter, when God proclaims,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exod 34:6)

The words ‘merciful and gracious’ are keywords for mercy in both Hebrew and Greek. The combination of the two is a catchphrase in the rest of the Old Testament, which harks back to God’s mercy in Exodus as the grounds for prayer and hope in new situations. For example, the Exodus is Nehemiah’s basis for asking forgiveness when Israel returns from their exile in Babylon.

But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. (Neh 9:17)

These are Exodus stereotypes of God’s mercy, and they occur with surprising frequency across a variety of genres and contexts (e.g. Num 14:18; 2 Kgs 13:23; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Isa 30:18; Dan 9:18; Jonah 4:2). The whole Old Testament understanding of God is anchored to his self-revelation at Sinai, which in turn is centred on his mercy.

New Testament

When we flip to the New Testament, Moses gives way to Jesus, and the Exodus gives way to the cross. Slavery to sin is still the troubler of humankind, but the cross supplies mercy, par excellence:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his
own mercy … (Titus 3:3-5)

In the Gospels, Jesus is Exodus 34:6 personified. One commentator has said, “If we take the most important statement of God’s identity from the Old Testament and compare it to the life of Christ, we see that Jesus is very God of very God”.3 His petitioners cry out, “Son of David, have mercy on me”, and he responds to them with a compassion reminiscent of God looking down on his people in slavery (Exod 3:7, cf. Matt 9:36). But his mercy is more than emotional; it is a distinctive, cross-shaped act that makes ‘mercy’ a stereotyped word for salvation in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 1:68-72; Rom 9:23; Eph 2:4-5; 1 Pet 1:3).

Like at Sinai, New Testament mercy is also elective. Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 to show that God is not unjust if some do not receive mercy because it is his to give or withhold. He concludes that, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16). Like elective surgery, God’s mercy can be pursued, but it is not a right.

It is clear, then, that God’s mercy eclipses human mercy in both Old and New Testaments. If we are looking for a definition of mercy, we must start with God’s inclination to redeem his people from trouble; the sovereign and compassionate mercy that looks down on an enslaved and undeserving people and elects to forgive their sin.

Human mercy

But just as an astronomical eclipse is an opportunity to better study the hidden object, so we can hope to squint at human mercy around the edges of the divine.4 Jesus himself expects that we will extrapolate from God’s mercy to ours, when he says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). In fact, he rebukes the Pharisees for not seeing that mercy is as much an application of the Old Testament law as tithing, sacrifices, and the Sabbath (Matt 9:13, 12:7, 23:23). And the parable of the unmerciful servant gives a solemn warning to anyone who has experienced divine mercy but doesn’t pass it on (Matt 18:23-35). With such biblical goading, we should certainly continue and attempt to distil some categories of human mercy.

Physical need

It turns out there are around fifty references to human mercy in the New Testament. Ten of them are requests for mercy from people with specific complaints, including leprosy, blindness, seizures, and demon-possession. These petitioners often experience related forms of suffering as well: social and religious isolation, financial destitution, and emotional distress (e.g. Luke 17:12-14, 18:35-39; Matt 15:22, 17:15). James adds to these the deprivation of food and clothing (Jas 2:1-15), and rebukes the person who sees the need but does not address it with practical mercy.

We can also add Jesus’ parables about mercy. Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbour?” and in response he sketches the good Samaritan, who is described as “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). In contrast to the religious passers-by in the story, the Samaritan attends to some­one robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Mercy is thus equated with being neighbourly: “Here is the essence of being a neighbour: having the sensitivity to see a need and act to meet it”.5 In another famous parable, a rich man pleads for the ‘mercy’ he himself failed to show to the hungry and sore-ridden Lazarus at his door (Luke 16:24). It seems the rich and religious see the person, but they don’t see the need. Jesus and the Samaritan, however, both see and meet the need.

This suggests our first category of mercy: immediate physical need. Not that immediate mercy is fleeting mercy—for the Samaritan, his trip to Jericho must wait. He not only stops and tends, but he then transports, finances, and follows up. Meanwhile, I hurriedly shove a few dollars at the vagrant as I run for my train. I suppose I could catch a later service, walk to McDonalds, share a meal, and listen for the underlying issues. But sometimes I just don’t see the need.

Financial need

A second category seems to bubble up from the language of the New Testament. The parable of the unforgiving servant famously introduces us to mercy in the financial arena (Matt 18:33), but the common word used for ‘almsgiving’, ‘giving to the poor’, and ‘begging’ derives from the Greek word for mercy. In Jewish culture the classic act of mercy was dropping a few coins in the beggar’s bowl. If you trace the word’s use through the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it gradually changes from righteousness (Deut 6:25), to righteous acts (Dan 4:27), to benevolent activity (Prov 20:28), and finally to almsgiving (e.g. Luke 12:33). We seem to have done the same with our word ‘charity’, which was once ‘brotherly love and affection’, but is now a coin in the Salvation Army tin or a direct-debit to World Vision.

This is a very practical and measurable form of mercy, but it brings with it a couple of caveats. Jesus warns of almsgiving done “to be praised by others” (Matt 6:2-4), and of tithing to the poor while still being full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:41-52). Our modern idea of mediated charity leaves us open to an aloof, mechanical kind of mercy. Recently I attempted online sponsorship in a well-known annual charity-drive. I was pre­sented with a list of all the other sponsors, and even the amounts they had given. I knew the names of all the givers—but none of the receivers! In contrast, biblical almsgiving is more of a social relation, which “collapses the distance between the social elite and the needy”.6 Biblical mercy is neighbourly—involving physical or relational proximity. International aid and communication open up wonderful new opportunities for mercy, but it is concerning if our portfolio of mercy lacks any actual names or face-to-face contact.

Relational need

Outside the Bible, mercy is habitually pictured as the opposite of justice. This tension seems present in God’s own dealings (e.g. Rom 9:15-23; 1 Pet 2:10), but there are few verses that link justice with human mercy. Possibly this is because the persecuted New Testament communities were rarely in a position to show judicial mercy. But there is a related set of passages in the interpersonal sphere. For example, Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” as a summary of his teaching on loving enemies, resisting revenge, withholding judgement, and forgiving debts (Luke 6:27-38). He also links “Blessed are the merciful” to God’s own forgiveness (Matt 5:7, cf. Jas 2:13).

These passages are interesting for their focus on mercy as a virtue—something you are, rather than just something you do. Romans 12 even talks about mercy as a spiritual gift (Rom 12:8). But the nub is that we do not normally see strained relationships as opportunities for mercy. Very few churches have an active ministry of peace-making for estranged brethren (Matt 5:9, cf. 1 Cor 6:5).7 In biblical terms, however, the need is as clear as a man beaten and stripped in the gutter. The need is not just forgiveness, but reconciliation—the restoration of contact, rapport, and love. Do I see the need, or do I just see red? If we insist on the category of justice, we may conclude that the release of the Lockerbie Bomber was needless. But if we observe the biblical category of relational needs then we might find some room for forgiveness—both for criminal offences and for that slight at morning tea last Sunday.

Spiritual need

The final category brings us back to the edge of divine mercy, because it deals with our ultimate needs. We often overlook the greetings in the New Testament epistles, although we might mimic them by starting or signing an email with ‘grace and peace’. But have you noticed that four different books—1 & 2 Timothy, 2 John, and Jude—include ‘mercy’ as one of their opening well-wishes? The desire for others to experience God’s spiritual mercy is embedded in the customs of early church communications. There is also a distinctive passage in Jude that applies mercy to four different types of spiritual mercy.

Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the [saving] mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have [encouraging?] mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show [corrective?] mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 21-23)

There is some ambiguity about the wording of this passage, but mercy seems to address the spiritual needs of salvation, assurance, and godliness. The first reference is divine mercy, and the rest are attempts to mimic it in our spiritual dealings with others in the church. In the first case (v. 22), perhaps some gentle encouragement is in view. In the second (v. 23a), a sharp and timely wake-up call for the nominal Christian. The last (v. 23b), perhaps a more arms-length rebuke like a written warning (cf. Gal 6:1). Regardless of the application, the mercy motive seems to find plenty of need in the spiritual category. This is not a well-recognized context for mercy. We may see the need to rebuke a brother or sister, but do we see it as an opportunity for mercy? In churches with a chronic inability to exercise discipline, perhaps this is the motivation that is lacking. Who would have thought a rebuke was the merciful and neighbourly thing to do?

Practical Mercy

So we’ve done our groundwork and spotted some categories of biblical mercy. Now we can try to answer some of the questions we started with. What kind of thing is mercy? It seems to be an amalgam of things: behaviours, attitudes, habits, and motivations. That would make it a virtue, in ethicist-speak—a settled pattern of character and action. In Bible-speak, that makes it a fruit of the Spirit. But what is the distinctive pattern of mercy? It seems to be an inclination toward compassion. It desires and attempts to meet the pressing needs of those nearby, whether physical, financial, relational, or spiritual.

In the digital world, however, ‘nearby’ is an increasingly flexible term. Technology lets us see more and more people in dire situations: TV ads, direct mail, email, door-knockers, street stalls, fundraisers, church announcements—even Facebook ‘causes’. I searched for ‘Make Poverty History’ on Facebook and found 452 separate fund-raising efforts. When you start seeing them, the sheer volume of needs is paralysing. But perhaps the ‘neighbour’ concept can help us here. We cannot meet every need, but we can start by addressing those ‘nearest’ to us: those we happen to walk past, drive by, sit next to, or web-browse today. We don’t sit pondering, “And who is my neighbour?” Rather, as one of the church fathers pointed out, “We become neighbours by showing mercy”.8 The merciful person simply sees the need, stops for it, and mobilises their resources to meet it.

What about competing opinions and popular ideas of mercy? A 2009 survey for the American Bible Society asked people to identify the source of a quote about mercy for the poor and helpless from Proverbs 31:8-9. The most common responses included Barack Obama, Oprah, Bono, and the Dalai Lama. Only 13% recognised it as biblical. Clearly there are many conceptions of mercy on the market. But even without a precise definition, we can test them against the grain of scriptural mercy. Are they neighbourly, or do they attempt to hurry by? Do they restore and promote relationships, or do they keep their distance? Do they look for exceptions and loopholes, or do they mimic God’s own steadfast mercy?

That last question is crucial, because we started with the observation that God’s mercy precedes and predominates in Scripture. Human mercy may follow the pattern of the divine, but it will always fall short. It is God’s brand of mercy which distinguishes him from humanity (Hos 11:9). Likewise, we cannot lay claim to the elective side of God’s mercy. In the parables, the rich and religious are condemned because they are selective about their mercy. It is not ours to choose our neighbours any more than to choose our family. We are simply told to be neighbourly to whomever God puts in our path. God chooses the objects of his mercy—and ours! That makes us agents of divine mercy, a humbling and nerve-wracking thought!

But the glory and sovereignty of God’s mercy should not paralyse our own attempts to mimic it. Jesus still urges us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”. Neither should our lack of practice or preparedness prevent us from trying. A great help for me is pinned to my corkboard: a list entitled When People Need Help from my denomination’s welfare arm. It includes phone numbers for counselling, emergency accommodation, mental health, and a variety of other services.9 Even if I don’t know how to show mercy in a particular case, I know someone who does. Such organizations are wise and experienced in mercy, if we have enough raw compassion to call. But there is no shortage of needs out there, so if we aim to be a merciful person, we’ll probably start responding to them. And in the process, our halting attempts at mercy will witness to God’s mercy at the cross—and draw strength from it.

The original act of generosity is God’s alone, beyond replication; yet that should not make us despise the partial and conditioned reflections that we may from time to time be given to display.10

  1. ‘Mercy misdirected’, The Australian, August 29, 2009.
  2.  If you did the Bible brief in Briefing #378, then you’ve already done the groundwork for this by surveying the idea of mercy across the whole Bible.
  3.  Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, Crossway Books, Illinois, 2005, p. 1045.
  4.  For those wanting to fault the analogy, this is not to imply that our mercy is somehow greater than God’s!
  5.  Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51-24:53, Baker Academic, Michigan, 1994, p. 1032.
  6.  Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1997, p. 471.
  7.  If this ministry interests you, make sure you read Bruce Burge’s article in this issue.
  8.  A paraphrase of Origen, italics added. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, Apollos, Leicester, 1986, p. 241.
  9.  You can get more information at, or from other denominational welfare groups.
  10. Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2005, p. 100.

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