April/May 2016 - Vol. 85

 cross against sky
What Is Mercy?
by Paul Jordan

It seems that everyone’s talking about mercy – me included - but do I really know what it means?

For some months I have been pondering the idea of mercy. I have to confess there was something about the word that bothered me. It all just sounds a bit too nice. And let’s face it nice is not a word that comes to mind when you read the Gospel through.

So I had another look in the Bible to try to find out more. I came up with three main things.

How God is merciful
The first thing you see is the way in which God is merciful. Mercy in this way is the kind of love that God shows his people Israel despite their grumbling in the wilderness. He doesn’t give up on them. He is faithful. He is steadfast. Mercy here is like the way that God makes clothes for Adam and Eve at the gates of the Garden. Or closer to home, mercy in this case is like when one of my kids again spills his milk at the table. There’s a bit of a groan but we clean it up and move on. We don’t give up on them. We decide to keep on loving. This is mercy. In Hebrew they call it hesed a kind of faithful love. And in fact, it’s one of the main words that God uses to reveal himself to us (see Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Lamentations 3:22-23).

The second definition is probably best translated as kindness. It’s the good Samaritan thing. “Which one of the three passers-by showed him mercy” asks the Lord Jesus rhetorically (Luke 10:36-37). Here it has something to do with going out of your way to help someone else. This kind of mercy is best friends with compassion. The Germanic languages translate compassion as ‘suffering with.’ As such it’s a necessary precursor of this breed of kindness-mercy since without any recognition of the suffering of the other, the action of kindness probably won’t occur. And so it tends to have to do with helping someone out. The Lord seems to be upholding this to us as an example of love of neighbor in need. So that’s also important.

The ‘Gospel of Mercy’
Number Three may be the one that evades most of us these days and yet this is probably the main reason the Gospel is a ‘Gospel of Mercy’. It has to do with the sparing of a just punishment. One of the best illustrations of this is ‘The Prodigal Son’. Another name for that story could well be ‘The Merciful Father’. The son seriously messes up. He throws away his relationship with his own father and squanders his inheritance losing his right to sonship. The father, by virtue of the fact that he is father, has authority over his son. When the son returns, he would be well within his rights to condemn him, or ‘judge him away’ as some languages put it. And yet he doesn’t. He does the opposite. He reinstates him as his son. This is mercy.

His mercy sets us free
Grace is giving someone what they don’t deserve. A kind of personal favor. Mercy is not giving someone what they do deserve. But this mercy can only be given by he who has authority to judge. It is his justice that serves his mercy and his mercy that sets us free.

The gospel is rich but becomes tasteless if we dilute away this third and most powerful form of mercy. But we so often do! Perhaps we just don’t get it. Perhaps we don’t like the idea of anyone having the authority to make judgments over us, even though parents and judges do it all the time. Perhaps we’ve psychologized our sin away to some kind of form of personal weakness we “just need to work on”.

The problem is this: when you reduce the Gospel of Mercy to only Hesed and Kindness you don’t really get set free. You sell yourself short and end up…well, just nice.

Yes. It’s really this third definition that’s the savior. It makes the Gospel of Mercy personal, real and worth selling your field for. When you truly meet this kind of mercy it changes your life. Forever. Ask the prodigal. Ask the woman caught in adultery.

Of course, I must remember God is faithful and I should be kind to my neighbor. But for me to avail of the kind of freedom Christianity offers I need to know Mercy No. 3.  But here’s the trick: for that to happen I have to name my sin. There’s no other way. If I don’t then my walk through the door of mercy opens up into just another nice day instead of into a great hall filled with a great feast.

“For it was for our sake that he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Paul JordanPaul Jordan grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. In the late 1990’s as part of the Servants of the Word missionary brotherhood he helped lead the university outreach in London. Thereafter working for Kairos Europe and the Middle East he lived in Munich, Germany for three years and since 2007 with his wife Noemi and now four children in Leuven, Belgium. He helps lead the Sword of the Spirit Jerusalem Community in Belgium and directs the work of Kairos in the EME region. He can be reached at paul.jordan@kairos-eme.org.
 (c) copyright 2016 The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom
email: living.bulwark@yahoo.com