God’s Mercy on the Helpless and Broken
What is God’s mercy and why do we need it? According to the Bible, God loves all people, without conditions. He also offers his grace to all. This is who he is — he is kind, gracious, and loving. He is merciful to the helpless and broken. But God’s mercy, as it relates to forgiveness, is conditional. If that is true, then conditional upon what?
Many today use the terms grace and mercy broadly and as a result cloud and bring confusion to the Christian faith. So before we start, let’s make sure we understand the meanings of the words we are discussing. The word grace can be generally defined as kindness to the undeserving. In the Bible, God’s grace is his kindness in offering his physical and spiritual blessings freely to all.
What is Mercy?
Mercy can be defined in two ways.
The first meaning is the one most people are familiar with. This is when compassion is shown to someone who is physically or emotionally vulnerable or in trouble.
As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27-30)
The gospels are filled with stories like this. Jesus showed mercy by healing many sick and crippled people during the three years of his ministry. He usually acted in response to their cries for help. But many times he acted at someone else’s request, or on occasion, no request at all.
Our response to God’s mercy
As demonstrated by Jesus, God loves to show mercy to those in need. He delights in rescuing those who are vulnerable or in trouble, especially when they call out to him for help. God showing mercy to someone physically in danger or in trouble can lead the person to seek God and into a faith relationship with him. And this is God’s desire, that the trials of life will drive each of us to trust and love God.
But of course this doesn’t always happen. I personally knew a man who years ago was in a desperate situation, being confronted by someone threatening to kill him with a gun. He offered the following prayer: “God if you are real, then get me out of this. If you do, I will believe in you.” God delivered him, and he got out unharmed. But within several years he was making fun of people who believed in God.
In Luke 17:11-19 Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one of them turned back to thank Jesus. The one who did progressed in his faith and love for God, but the others went on their way without God.
When God withholds his mercy
God is by nature merciful and he extends it abundantly, even when people don’t realize they need it. But God withholds his mercy when there is a lack of appreciation and love for him.
Because the people of Nazareth knew Jesus when he was younger, they didn’t receive his ministry very well. As a result he didn’t do many miracles there. So he rebuked these people saying:
“ I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:25-27)
Jesus was telling them that God extends his mercy where he knows it will be well-received. But he can withhold it where there is no interest in God.
The second less-known meaning of mercy is forgiveness given to someone who deserves to be punished. For example, a judge in some cases can show mercy by being lenient with a person convicted of a crime. This relates directly to our relationship to God and how we approach him. In the spiritual realm, mercy and forgiveness are closely related.
God’s mercy in this context means he forgives the lost sinner and brings him into a safe relationship with him. Although he deserves punishment, God doesn’t punish him but rescues and forgives him. Of course, everyone needs this kind of mercy. We have all sinned, and according to the Bible, we all deserve to be punished for our sins. And we have all strayed from God’s paths and need to be rescued.
God wants to have compassion on those who are helpless and broken. But how can they be rescued?
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector
To answer this, let’s look at one of Jesus’ more familiar parables, that of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In it, Jesus constructed a fictional account of two men, one very religious and another worldly and regarded by the Jewish people as a sinner because of his profession. Jesus exaggerates the descriptions of the two characters to illustrate his point, although people like these two undoubtedly existed at that time.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Two entirely different prayers
The Pharisee’s prayer exhibited self-righteousness, pride, and independence from God. He typified the religious hypocrite, who is confident of his own righteousness. The tax collector’s prayer showed humility, repentance, and faith, typifying the repentant sinner. He had nothing to offer God, but most importantly he begged God for mercy. In other words, he realized who he was before God and asked to be forgiven for his sin.
The main point of this parable is that God gives mercy to those who admit their need and come to him for forgiveness. There are no complex theological doctrines such as election or predestination here. It is just a simple story about a broken man who approaches God in humility and begs for forgiveness for the wrongs he had done. This is the classic description of repentance.
The humble will be exalted
Jesus’ conclusion to the parable is that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus used this saying as a principle in other teachings, such as the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14:7-11, and in his commandment against the use of religious titles in Matthew 23:8-12.
This saying fits well in this parable because the humble, repentant man was the one who was “justified,” not the self-righteous religious man. He received God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, while the one who exalted himself did not. Hundreds of years before Jesus, King Solomon penned this proverb:
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)
God’s conditional mercy
So in the context of salvation, God’s mercy is conditional—conditional upon humility, brokenness, and repentance before God. This was true in both Old Testament and New Testament times, and it is true today. Mary the mother of Jesus affirmed this after the angel’s announcement to her of the Savior’s birth:
“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” (Luke 1:50-51)
The proud will not admit their need for God’s mercy, and so God doesn’t extend it to them. He opposes them and they are eventually “scattered.” Quoting Proverbs 3:34, James says:
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (James 4:6)
God does not give mercy and forgiveness to those who are intentionally unrepentant and defiant toward him. If they never repent, they eventually receive God’s punishment. In the Bible these are called “the wicked.” But God’s grace and mercy find a home in those who submit to him in humility, repentance, and love.
Prayers for mercy in the Bible
The Psalms have many examples of prayers for mercy from God. Here are just a few, all of them written by David:
I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” (Psalm 41:4)
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love you name. (Psalm 119:132)
If you don’t know God’s love yet and are in need of forgiveness, these psalms can guide you in your prayers to God. And know that as you do, God will forgive your sins — he will justify you.
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. (Micah 7:18)
There is no one like God. There is no one who is as patient, kind, and loving as God. We can trust him because he is good and wants the best for us. He takes no pleasure in letting people suffer, in punishing us for our sins, or in being angry with people. He much prefers to show his mercy, and he will if you ask him.
The forgiven will show mercy to others
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made this statement:
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
After the above discussion, how are we to understand this? This can be interpreted several ways. Is Jesus is saying that if we are merciful to others, then God will pay us back by forgiving our sins? No, I don’t believe so. Jesus in this sermon is characterizing the children of God, and how they reflect their heavenly Father. In this passage Jesus is affirming that those who have been shown mercy will then out of gratitude show that mercy to others. They are blessed, because they are living within the grace and mercy of God.
But if a person has no mercy for others, then that is a good indication that they have not experienced it themselves, that they have not accepted it from God. This is demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan showed mercy to a man robbed and beaten by the side of the road, a man he had never met. He showed that he loved God because he obeyed his command to love others. The priest and the Levite passed by the injured man, not wanting to get involved. They showed that although they were religious, they did not love God since they didn’t have mercy on others.
The unforgiving servant
This is also shown in the parable of the unforgiving servant, found in Matthew 18:21-35. In it Jesus tells the fictional story of a servant who owed his master (a king) a very large sum. He approached him begging for leniency in paying his debt. The king then forgave the debt in full. That servant was also owed a very small amount by another and demanded payment from him. When that man could not pay, the servant choked him, took him to court, and had him thrown in jail. The king heard about it and was furious, sentencing this servant to a harsh sentence in jail. Jesus reveals the moral of the story when the master says to the servant:
‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ (Matthew 18:32-33)
The message is clear: those who have been shown mercy should show mercy to others. By logic, God’s people will be merciful people, because mercy has been shown to them and it is real in their lives. God’s grace has transformed them into being more like God, more loving and merciful. But the “wicked” are those who haven’t accepted mercy from God so they don’t extend it to others. And just as the king punished his unforgiving servant, so God will punish the wicked.
The throne of grace
Knowing what we know about God, that he is merciful and kind, we can boldly approach our King and ask for mercy.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
But if you have not experienced God’s forgiveness yet, I pray that you will take full advantage of the grace and mercy that he offers you in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts, Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Isaiah 55:7)
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