How We Should Demonstrate Mercy

Blessed Are the Merciful
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Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful —Luke 6:36, NASB

Being merciful may be defined in part as being compassionate and having a disposition to be kind and forgiving. It is spoken of everywhere in Scripture as a characteristic greatly to be appreciated and to be developed. It is a quality of God that as Jesus said we are to emulate.

 The Scriptures address being merciful towards all, including brethren, family, and the world at large. In the New Testament the need for mercy is most frequently connected to Christians needing to be merciful toward other Christians. Perhaps this is because we expect more from one another and therefore find the need for a greater exercise of mercy when those expectations are not met.

Be Merciful to Receive Mercy

Mercy finds a further definition in relation to grace. It may be said that while grace is receiving something we do not deserve, mercy is not receiving something we do deserve. We are told that God does not treat us as our sins deserve nor repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10). As we are thankful recipients of God’s grace and mercy toward us, we are to be merciful toward others. Jesus said the merciful are blessed because they will receive God’s mercy (Matthew 5:7).

But lest we should fail to get the full import of his words, he expanded on this theme when he said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1,2). The message is unmistakable. If we do not develop a spirit of mercy, a godlike spirit of forgiveness toward others, we will not be forgiven. This is further affirmed when he said: “When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).

Why is Mercy so Difficult?

Given these sobering statements, it is remarkable that it is so difficult for many Christians to be merciful. Why is that? Surely, first among many reasons is that the need for mercy is most often required when we believe someone has wronged us, when someone has said or done something we believe is a personal attack.

The Scriptures address both the ideal and the reality of Christian fellowship. The reality is that we will have disagreements and quarrels,  and occasions to complain. Nonetheless,  Paul told us when this occurs, we are to forbear and forgive (Colossians 3:12,13). Forbearing means to let it go. Do not take slights, perceived or real, or quarrels and allow them to reach the point of being divisive. Forbear and forgive, Paul said, even as Christ forgave you.

However, in addressing the reality of Christian fellowship, the Scriptures tell us there are occasions of conflict when we should not just “let it go.” As Jesus said, “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3,4, RVIC). Jesus does not say to let it go; he does say to rebuke.

Different situations call for different responses. Sometimes the response should be to forbear and forgive, but in the case of a trespass or sin, a rebuke may be necessary which hopefully will be followed by repentance and forgiveness. This is the essence of what Jesus said: “If thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established. And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican” (Matthew 18:15-17, RVIC).

We must be able to distinguish between those matters to let go, and sins that need to be addressed for the welfare of the sinning brother, and for harmonious fellowship. The situation described in Matthew 18 is so severe that if compounded by a failure to repent through the various steps enumerated, the individual is to be considered outside the fellowship, although there is no formal excommunication.

Many who have been sinned against by another have not taken the matter to the offending party, but to a third party, telling what was said or done that was so offensive. Clearly, if an issue is not important enough to be brought to the offending party, one should forbear and forgive —let it go. It should not be taken to someone else. This is the spirit of mercy that understands human frailties and the need to unify and build up the fellowship of the body of Christ. Paul encouraged us to walk worthy of the vocation or calling wherewith we are called: “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2,3).

Mercy and Forgiving

Though the quarrels or occasions to complain include the more common-place issues of conflicting personalities and disagreements, trespasses or sins should be rare. Nonetheless, it is of interest to note that if we combine the messages of Matthew 18:21,22 and Luke 17:3-6, we gather from Jesus’ words that even if the trespasses or sins are repeated over and over, as long as repentance occurs, we are to forgive. We are not to forgive philosophically or grudgingly, for Jesus said if we do not forgive from the heart, we really have not learned the lesson, and we will not be forgiven (Matthew 18:35). The apostles who heard Jesus’ words realized how difficult it could be to have such a willingly forgiving spirit and said to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). He responded by saying, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you” (Luke 17:6).

What a lesson in faith! The apostles’ words acknowledged their own weakness, but Jesus’ words encouraged them to exercise a faith in the transforming power of God, a power that could not only miraculously move a sycamine tree but do a far greater work in their lives. The apostles would come to understand how the miraculous transforming power of the spirit would enable them to do that which they could not of themselves do as natural men, forgiving trespasses seventy times seven, from the heart.

Mercy and Justice

Any consideration of mercy must include its relationship to justice. Justice and mercy are both attributes of God and they do not work at cross purposes. The Scriptures do not encourage blind mercy that ignores the demands of justice, just as they do not encourage justice that is not tempered by mercy. The Scriptures speak of mercy both toward the smaller things we need to forbear and forgive, and in the larger matters concerning those who have sinned or trespassed against us and have repented. The key is that the offending party repents for his or her wrongdoing, and thereby meets the demands of justice.

James gave us a beautiful expression of justice tempered by mercy: “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth [glories] against [over] judgment” (James 2:13). James’ message, based on Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount, states that judgment or justice must be tempered by mercy. The one who is not merciful is liable to receive merciless justice. Therefore, mercy glories over judgment.

Merciful judgment is not only ennobling to the one proffering it. it creates the best climate for repentance and restoration for the one who has sinned. Merciful judgment means a generosity of spirit and a willingness to be tolerant, compassionate, and forgiving. From the smaller matters of the mote or speck in another’s eye to the larger matters of sin, merciful judgment demonstrates a generosity of spirit that distinguishes between the sin and the sinner, and is more than willing to forgive upon acknowledgment and repentance. Another meaning we may draw from James’ words is that a merciful person rejoices in the opportunity to show mercy rather than responding only to the demands of strict justice.

Justice and Mercy Working Together

There is this thought-provoking example in the life of the apostle Paul that gives insight into his application of justice and mercy working in concert:  “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition [instruction] that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-16, RSV).

Paul’s strong words bear close examination for balancing the appropriate demands of justice with the exercise of mercy. In this example Paul encouraged merciful behavior in two ways: First, Paul presented himself as an example of being merciful and compassionate towards others by not wanting to be a burden upon them, by not eating anyone’s food without paying for it. He gave up his right to be supported. He was not pursuing justice for himself, but he was demonstrating mercy toward others by demanding less than he had a right to. He gave himself as an example for others to follow.

Second, Paul promoted mercy in the way he instructed the brethren to treat the offending brother. Paul encouraged them to take a stand of justice toward the idle and not reward their indolence. However, justice was to be tempered with mercy. The brethren were told to do three things:  1) not support the indolent; 2) have no company with them to make them ashamed; 3) admonish them as brethren. This was not to expel but to recover the offenders by teaching them to abandon their idleness and come back into peace and harmony with their brethren. Paul’s advice emphasized that it is not good to “let it go” if the issue between brethren is serious. Letting it go would not serve the offending individual because it would encourage the wrong behavior and continue the disharmony among the fellowship as a whole.

Being Godlike

Jesus said being merciful is being godlike. It ennobles the one proffering mercy. The generosity of spirit offers both the greatest opportunity of recovery of an offender, and forbearance or letting go of smaller matters that we need not make an issue of. A merciful spirit offers the greatest opportunity for growth in the body of Christ, individually and collectively, as we endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. As James wrote, “the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18, RSV).

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. He is our model: “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Psalm 145:8-10).