The word “mercy” is thrown around a lot. It’s seen by many as just another church-y word, similar to grace, compassion, or forgiveness. When we think about the word mercy, images of a courtroom may come to mind. We think of people begging for mercy or forgiveness for something that they’ve done wrong. But is this the way God intended for us to understand mercy?
What is Mercy?
Biblically, showing mercy to others is so much more than forgiving someone else for an offense. Eliamosuna, the Greek word for merciful, presents a much wider definition of the word. “We think of mercy so much in terms of forgiveness in salvation, but it is really a much broader term,” writes pastor and author John MacArthur in The Only Way to Happiness: The Beatitudes. “It goes beyond compassion. It goes beyond sympathy. It means sympathy and compassion in action toward anyone in need.” He continues:
“...the real eliamonsuna is not the weak sympathy that carnal selfishness feels but never does anything about. It is not that false mercy that indulges its own flesh in salving of conscience by giving tokenism. It is not the silent, passive pity that never seems to help in a tangible way. It is genuine compassion with a pure, unselfish motive that reaches out to help...Mercy is infinitely bigger than just forgiveness.” (p.133-135)
While mercy certainly shows up in Scripture as a noun, it is perhaps more commonly found as a verb. In Matthew 6, for example, it’s used to describe almsgiving, the act of giving financially to the poor and downtrodden. MacArthur notes that one Hebrew synonym for this action is chesed, which means “to have mercy on, to succor the afflicted, to give help to the wretched, and to rescue the miserable.” In fact, he says, “anything you do that is of benefit to someone in need is mercy” (p.133).
We also see mercy on full display in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. John Piper writes that this passage shows us that biblical mercy “sees distress,” “responds internally with a heart of compassion or pity toward a person in distress,” “responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress,” and “acts even when the person in distress is an enemy.”
God’s Mercy on Display through Christ
Biblical mercy is one of the many ways that Christians give others a small glimpse of the love that God has shown towards them—sinners completely unworthy of rescue. When we were dead in our trespasses and loved evil, we deserved every bit of suffering and pain we experienced. It was not until God sent Jesus to die in our place and take the punishment for our sin that we were freed from the eternal penalties of sin. God’s mercy—His desire to lift us out of the pit of death and set us upon firm ground (Psalm 40:2)—flows directly from His overwhelming love. In fact, Ephesians 2:4 tells us that God is rich in mercy “because of his great love that he had for us” (CSB). MacArthur declares that “Mercy is the physician; love is the friend. Love acts out of affection; mercy acts out of need. Love is constant; mercy is reserved for times of trouble. There is no mercy without love.” (p.136)
In Jesus’s time, Romans saw mercy as a “disease of the soul” and a sign of weakness. They prized power deeply, and mercy was seen as an unnecessary concession of that power. But Jesus turned this cultural attitude toward mercy upside down. Jesus modeled mercy perfectly by healing the sick and maimed, clothing the naked, visiting the grieving, and bringing society’s most despised sinners near to Himself. Out of His great love, he showered mercy on the undeserving and rescued them from their pain and destitution.
Why Does Showing Mercy Matter?
God is merciful.
The Bible is full of examples of God’s mercy. Psalm 86:15 tells us that God is “full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in mercy and truth” (NKJV). Paul writes that God is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NKJV). Testimonies of His mercy spill out of the pages of Scripture, presenting instance after instance of the lengths to which God went to alleviate the suffering of those He created.
God calls us to ministries of mercy.
God takes mercy seriously and commands His people to labor alongside Him through their own acts of mercy. In fact, the Beatitudes tell us it will be the merciful who will be blessed and receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). Luke’s gospel is even more explicit, calling Christians to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 NIV).
Acts of mercy are evidence of God’s work in our hearts.
The truth is we can’t become merciful people on our own. In fact, Tim Keller says that at worst, a man that does not desire to show mercy toward the poor “has not really encountered the saving mercy of God.” (Generous Justice, p.94) In order to be the compassionate people the Lord has called us to become, we must pray for a broken heart—a heart that has understood its complete inability to make itself right before God, lamented over sin, and begged God for His righteousness and mercy. It is only then that we can receive true wisdom that is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17 NIV)
How Are We to Show Mercy?
As an Individual
While groups can often accomplish more than an individual can by themselves, there are unique opportunities for individuals looking to participate in acts of mercy. Serving others one-on-one allows you to get to know others on a personal level and build deeper relationships. Individuals can show mercy to others today by listening to a hurting colleague, delivering meals to new parents, or bringing food items to the homeless individual passed on the way to work every morning. It is through acts of service that you’ll have the opportunity to bless others and develop the understanding needed to best come alongside and address people’s physical and spiritual wounds.
As a Small Group
Small groups can provide hurting people with community. Groups are great when the pain felt by a person or family in need is deep. If the financial need is substantial (e.g., there was a medical accident, a home was lost, a car broke down, etc.) then it will likely take a group of people to help get that family back on their feet. People will need to pitch in to relieve the hurting. This isn’t just financial support—if a person is working through a divorce, loss, or struggling with an addiction, it may be too heavy of an emotional toll on just one other person to handle. Bringing the hurting person into a tight family of Christians (whether the hurting person is a believer or not) is the best way to tangibly show them how great God’s mercy is through their own generous mercy and compassion. God’s mercy can also be put on display through the love group members show to each other internally. If they meet each others’ needs when one or more fall on hard times, it serves as evidence to those on the outside that God’s Spirit is at work.
As a Community
Because sin has broken both personal relationships as well as systems at the societal level, lovers of mercy must be involved at both levels as well. Christians can fight for mercy by advocating for more compassionate laws that reduce the suffering experienced by marginalized populations. They can also give to or volunteer with organizations that feed the hungry, care for the orphan, or shelter the immigrant and refugee. Organizing or participating in local forums are excellent ways for believers to grow in their compassion and understanding of issues causing suffering as well.
In order to show mercy, Christians must fight to keep their eyes on the greatest example of mercy—the mercy that was shown to them by God through the death of His Son on the Cross. It is a mercy so beautiful and overwhelming that, if properly appreciated, cannot help but move its recipient to action. “...for those of us who have received mercy, how could we be anything but merciful?” challenges MacArthur. “What did we deserve? If we needed mercy so desperately from God, how can we demand to be cruel to somebody?” (p.141) Now, “in view of God’s mercy,” Paul writes, you are “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1 NIV) to bring Him even more of the glory He deserves.
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.