Mercy Is a Verb

Written by on May 31, 2022

Jesus taught us, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

If we’re recipients of divine mercy—not the judgment we deserve— how much more should we show mercy to one another? 

Generous Mercy

The merciful are slow to judge. You’ve probably heard the adage “If you’re angry, count to ten before responding.” This would go a long way in today’s outrage-charged society. Consider how mercy would change your response to those you disagree with. When you see a social media post that rubs you the wrong way, consider counting to ten before judging. Then give it another ten minutes to consider (a) if you’ve interpreted the post correctly and (b) if it’s really worth responding to.

Taking this time to reflect points us toward mercy, not judgment. In social-media debates, many readers are triggered by a surface reading of a post and respond immediately, without adequate reflection. So they end up reading their own context into posts. When this happens, the debate that ensues is based on misunderstanding, often resulting in an acrimonious exchange that generates more heat than light. When we don’t count to ten before responding, we often make snap judgments.

The merciful are in touch with the fact that they haven’t received what they deserve—divine wrath—but in Christ have received more than they deserve—“grace upon grace” (John 1:16). They recognize God’s generous mercy towards them and, in turn, show it to others. This way of seeing ourselves—as recipients of undeserving, contra-conditional, radical love—produces an impulse to search ourselves first for fault. The merciful consistently give others the benefit of the doubt.

This is something I have to work at, which is why I admire it so much in others. When my kids drag in the morning, bicker among themselves, and delay our getting out the door on time, I often find myself quick to judge and slow to show mercy. I think If you had gotten up when I asked you to . . .

My wife, on the other hand, is disposed to see the whole picture and show mercy. She gives the benefit of the doubt, such as pointing out that the kids went to bed late, it was a long weekend, or one of them isn’t feeling well. She doesn’t assume they’re ill-intentioned slackers; instead, she recognizes there are always circumstances that make it difficult to be spry and obedient at 6:30 in the morning.

I, however, tend to see through the lens of judgment. I see disobedience, disrespect, and difficulty. I don’t take into account that I have been up for an hour, that I’ve already made the adjustment from sleepyhead to wide awake. Man, I need to quit letting mercy stop at my door!

Sacrificial Mercy 

Merciful people are also frequently sacrificial. They embrace inconvenience in order to show mercy to others. They don’t enjoy piling others up with burdens, but instead consistently relieve the burdens of others. One morning I received a text that read, “You’ve hurt your mother’s feelings. Can you follow up with her?” I was cut to the heart, and I wondered what I’d done. I called to check on her. For two years she’d been trying to get random atrial fibrillation under control. Her heart rate would spike up to two hundred beats per minute and then slowly die down, leaving her utterly depleted of energy. During the call, I made some insensitive suggestions that reflected my ignorance of what she was going through. As we chatted, I began to realize I didn’t understand how difficult life had been for her.

Atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots, a stroke, and even heart failure. So, in addition to being constantly confronted with her mortality, my mother couldn’t do the things she loved to do most: work in her flower garden and serve others, especially her children and grandchildren. She simply lacked the energy. I asked her why she hadn’t been more honest about how hard life had been. She responded, “I wanted to keep it from you because you have so much responsibility with the kids, the church, and everything. I didn’t want to be a burden.”

My mom has been relieving burdens for so long, that it’s simply unthinkable for her to impose a burden on others. She has been a burden reliever her whole life. She’s constantly serving in the background, cooking, cleaning, writing cards, playing with grandkids, sending thoughtful packages, applying Band-Aids to skinned knees, and most of all, praying. When I feel the need for prayer, she is the first person I call. But in this case, she needed prayer, she needed support, and she needed her burdens to be relieved. She was so used to giving mercy, that she hadn’t even thought about receiving mercy from us.

What a striking picture of mercy: to be so concerned with relieving others that you don’t think of relief for yourself. Of course, it’s important to also receive mercy, but many of us are better at receiving than giving. I want to be more like my mother.

Active Mercy 

Mercy isn’t passive or weak; it is active. We’ve already seen how intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually active mercy can be, but mercy also gets things done. A truly merciful heart marshals empathy to serve others.

There’s a difference between empathy-based action and mercy-based action. Empathy-based action climbs into the sorrows of others and feels them strongly. Empathy can be a wonderful quality, but when we act primarily because of what we feel, we can easily lose our bearings. Empathy is narrowly focused because it’s harnessed by an emotion associated with a single person, event, or injustice. Mercy, however, is embedded in our character; this makes it run deeper and spread further. 

Several mercy ministries in our church focus on serving marginalized people in low-income apartments. These ministries are built on the conviction that mercy is person-centric, not project-based. Therefore much of what we do is focused on knowing people and, out of an intimate relationship, discerning how we can best meet practical needs.

Inevitably new volunteers come to these communities eager to do something. They may have been moved by a sermon or headline and want to make a difference. But if they don’t see visible progress within a few visits, they sometimes ask, “Why haven’t we built a new playground?” “When can we build better housing?” They want to accomplish something. In part, this is a good thing. They want to make a difference and see the physical change. But physical changes uninformed by relationship— and the wisdom that comes from it—can leave people feeling like projects, missing the target entirely. Mercy, however, looks others in the face. It moves us toward those in need, not only because we feel something but also because we want to know someone.

Showing mercy isn’t merely getting things done; it’s expressing God’s kindness to someone with a name.

So you see, the foundations of justice and mercy go back to the triune God, etched into his character and self-revelation as the I AM. When we recognize this, we are flattened out and lifted up all at once. We’re flattered by God’s just gaze at our sinful failure but lifted up by his deep, sacrificial mercy. We are inspired to be generous, sacrificial, and active in mercy— to be slow to judge, quick to give the benefit of the doubt, and eager to act on behalf of others. Merciful people show others what has been and forever will be shown to us in Christ.

Adapted from Our Good Crisis by Johnathan K. Dodson. Copyright (c) 2020 by Johnathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
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