What does mercy look like?
Bible writers tell us that God is rich in mercy, full of mercy, great in mercy; and the immoderate source of tender mercies. As previously promised, I’ll avoid the technicalities of original language or theological complexities. Suffice it to say, there are several original words in both testaments that are translated “mercy,” the nuance of each is a shade distinct from the others: pity, kindness, loving kindness, kindly affection, compassion. One of the terms even means to be so moved with empathy that the insides of the mercy-giver convulse!
Jesus, the image of the invisible God, put a face on the Father. So looking at Jesus we should be able to see examples of what mercy looks like on earth. His mercy spilled over onto diminutive extortionists sitting in trees and sex workers who came to his meetings. He showed mercy to fearful disciples who should’ve done better than to abandon him to the soldiers and on the soldiers who were wounded by impulsive disciples. His mercy-tank was full all the way to the end when he gifted a heaven pass to a thief and requested forgiveness for ignorant crucifiers. He was “acquainted” with his own grief and identified with the grief of widows at the funerals of their only sons. This is the way he was – merciful.
I confess that I’m a weeper. It started on the day Jesus broke in and stole my heart. Though I was his only taker that day, the pastor who called repenters to his altar missed his lunch hour waiting for me to stop my grateful sobbing. It was the first of many such mercy appreciation sessions for me. That day – and almost every time since then – when volcanic sobs erupt from my core it’s usually because I’m overwhelmed by a sense of mercy. Sometimes I cry out for mercy to help me in a season of great need and at other times I just cry in appreciation for mercy already abundantly given. Whether I’m crying out or just crying, it’s mercy that’s on my mind.
When sick, blind, poor, and miserable people called on Jesus in the gospel stories, they usually pled for mercy – “Have mercy on me!” In their desperation they cried out: “I don’t deserve your kindness or compassionate intervention, but I’m asking you to forego giving me what I deserve and treat me mercifully. You seem to be so brimming with mercy, I suspect that you have some to spare. Please use some of that spare mercy on me.”
Because mercy is the way he is, it’s the way he treats twisted, wretched, and all manner of undeserving souls – like us. It’s what he exudes when squeezed and what splashes over when he’s clutched.
This is nothing new, it’s the way he’s always been. If he hadn’t been so replete with mercy, our original parents would’ve keeled over before they ate to the apple’s core. God’s free-will experiment would have been awfully short-lived; instead he approached the naked produce thieves with mercy. Ever since he’s been kindly disposed toward us and found a way to ransom us from the slavery into which we sold ourselves.
God is so full of mercy that we can be confident that he won’t run out of it when we need it most. When my gas tank is full I don’t worry about stalling half way across the Golden Gate Bridge. Unless I refill it, my tank will eventually go completely dry, but not mercy. To worry that God’s mercy supply will prove inadequate when I need it is paramount to a sardine who hesitates to take a sip from the ocean lest he drink it dry! God has plenty to spare in his immense supply of mercy for all of us who admit our need for it.
“Mercy never began to be, but from eternity was;
so it will never cease to be. It will never be more
since it is in itself infinite; and it will never be less
the infinite cannot suffer diminution.” (A.W. Tozer)
As though the singular – “mercy” – were inadequate to express the surplus stock of God’s kindness, and how this quality of his exudes from his heart to many points of our need all at once, it is sometimes referred to as his “mercies.” Our neediness, as complex and overwhelming as it may be, can always find a relentless supply from the God of many mercies, a new ration of it shows up every morning. There’s an infinite quantity in the personality of an infinite Creator. It has no limits anywhere; its center is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere.