Mercy is described in Vine’s Expository Dictionary as “showing kindness, by beneficence, or assistance”, and is translated as “having compassion”. In general, it is to sympathize or empathize with the misery of another, so much so that you feel compelled to act. If not for mercy, you and I would still be lost. Jesus would not have died a gruesome death in order to redeem sinners from eternal suffering. It is mercy that drove Jesus to the cross and it is mercy that all Christians are to extend to others.
Mercy sort of sounds like grace, doesn’t it? But there is a distinction. Mercy is God not punishing us for our sins as we rightly deserve. Grace, is God loving us and blessing us even though we are sinners. Ephesians 2:8 tells us clearly, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves – it is the gift of God.” Mercy is deliverance from judgment. Grace is unmerited favour. The two often go hand in hand.
Jesus showed mercy and grace in action. In John 8:2-12 we see a beautiful example of mercy when a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. They knew the punishment for her was to be stoned to death, but Jesus offered mercy by saying, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Of course, all the scribes and Pharisees knew they couldn’t admit to being sinless, for the Torah (the laws they held so dear) told them they were sinners. So one by one they left until Jesus was left alone with the woman. He then offered grace to her by his actions. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
So how does mercy work as a spiritual gift? Is this a gift given only to certain Christians to exercise? Are there some Christians who have more of it so that they might use this gift better than others? Or is it a gift given to all Christians to extend to their fellow man? Let’s find out!
Jesus commands all believers to be merciful. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). And he promises that those who are merciful will receive mercy themselves (Matthew 5:7). In Colossians 3:12-14, Paul makes it clear that mercy should be at the heart of every Christian:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion [mercy], kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
Mercy is rightly translated as compassion because it utilizes those fruits of the spirit that define the heart of a follower of Christ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). But did you notice another element of mercy in the verse above? As our Lord showed us by carrying our sins to the cross, mercy also involves forgiving those who have sinned against us. So mercy is rightly interpreted as compassion and grace is rightly interpreted as unmerited favour. For with mercy we actively engage in loving others and it is through grace that we show that love.
Mercy is something all Christians must practice. It is to be part of our character – that which makes us followers of Christ. Without mercy, we become judgmental, hard-hearted, unforgiving and indifferent to those suffering around us. It was mercy that drove Jesus to the cross and it is mercy that should be of prime importance as we commit to following Him. For if we don’t extend mercy to others, how can we accept the mercy of forgiveness and eternal salvation Jesus offers us?
There are some who define mercy as having sympathy for another (with a heavy dose of empathy) who speak words of compassion to others in their times of distress, along with deeds to alleviate that distress. While that is certainly a merciful and compassionate thing to do, mercy is so much more than that. It is also being able to forgive those who have wronged you multiple times (Matthew 18:22). It is praying for your enemies and doing good to them (Matthew 5:44). It is overlooking prejudices to help another (Luke 10:25-27).
Mercy, like the gift of giving is seen in people who seem to have an endless supply of goodwill towards their fellowman. You know these Christians when you see them. They have been horribly wronged and yet extend forgiveness to the perpetrator. They go out of their way to be compassionate to those less fortunate. They are not easily offended by hurtful comments or transgressions against them. They literally put into practice Jesus’ admonition for us to “turn the other cheek”. People with the gift of mercy are often champions of the homeless, the exploited, or the forgotten, often acting on their behalf. They are a valuable and necessary part of the church body.