Summary: Our merciful God has pity on His children, who are in much distress, often of our own making. Mercy is a disposition to pardon the guilty. God gives what is undeserved, and doesn’t give what is.
At the end of the Civil War when the Confederate Army was finally defeated, Abraham Lincoln was asked how he would treat the rebellious South. The question hinted at the desire for severe punishment. But the merciful President said, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” Some vindictive Yankees urged the President to hang the rebel leaders, but Lincoln insisted, “No--we must hang on to them.”
The word “mercy” indicates having another person’s misery in our hearts. Our merciful God has pity on His children, who are in much distress, often of our own making. Micah 7:18, “Who is a God like You, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” And so mercy is a disposition to pardon the guilty. When a President or Governor issues a pardon, it is not because the one pardoned is innocent, but because they want to show clemency. It would not be mercy if it was deserved.
In His tender mercy God gives what is undeserved, and doesn’t give what is. We are protected from God by God. We need to remember that God doesn’t owe us Heaven. We deserve damnation. God’s mercy is His goodness towards those in misery and distress--the distress of sin. In mercy God acknowledges our fallen condition and responds to our plight, providing payment for our sin, and raising us up to new life in Christ. Instead of requiring us to pay the price, God pays it Himself. Jesus gave His life as a ransom for ours.
So many people claim they only want what they deserve. Not me; I know what I deserve! If God gave us our “just desserts” we would be without hope. People ask, “Why doesn’t God wipe out all evil?” Be glad He doesn’t; if He did a thorough job, He would not spare us. C.S. Lewis said, “I’d sooner pray for God’s mercy than for His justice on my friends, my enemies, and myself.” Scripture paints a bleak picture of life without Christ. But mercy is available to all. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not,” Lamentations 3:22.
In the movie Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler tells Nazi SS Officer Goeth: “Power is when we have every justification to kill and we don’t; instead we show mercy.” God would be justified to condemn us all; yet He doesn’t.
Mercy is not something God has but something God is (Tozer). He doesn’t become merciful; He always has been. His mercy is eternal, immeasurable and unchanging; nothing can diminish it. God’s mercy knows no bounds. And God keeps His word; He won’t give up on us; He won’t “change His mind.” He welcomes us as friends. What blessed assurance!
In ancient Israel, within the Temple, the “mercy-seat” was the cover or lid of the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of God’s presence and pardon. The blood of the Temple sacrifice was sprinkled onto the Mercy Seat, securing atonement for sin. The Mercy Seat in the Old Testament, and the Cross in the New, are corresponding places that provide mercy. In both, sacrifice was necessary. “It was the mercy of God that gave us the cross, not the cross that gave us mercy” (Tozer). The symbol of our Christian faith is the cross, not the scales of justice--thank God.
In Luke 18, Jesus commended the humble remorse of a man who cried out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is the kind of prayer that brings merciful healing and wholeness. It has been called the “Jesus Prayer” and “The Prayer of the Heart,” and many people pray it regularly. To pray “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is a reminder of our condition and our ongoing need for God’s abundant mercy.
We are to reflect this divine quality: Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful” and Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Some people get emotionally stirred by the needs of people but do nothing about it. God is actively merciful. And because of His mercy, He is “slow to anger,” Psalm 103:8.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is a play within the play. A group of traveling actors arrive at Elsinore castle and Hamlet charges the king’s advisor Polonius to care for their needs. Polonius replies, “I will give them according to their merit.” And Hamlet explodes: “Heavens, man, much better! Give everyone what they deserve and who should escape whipping? Treat them with honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit in your bounty.” This is showing mercy.
The unmerciful show no quarter; they “take no prisoners.” In Matthew 18 we see the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant--a man who owed a huge debt and pleaded to the king for mercy, but was unwilling to show mercy to others. The king’s response was: “So you want to live by justice? Then you shall have justice!” Because God is merciful, He is opposed to those who lack mercy (James 2:13).