At some point in my early Christian training, I inherited the memorable maxim,
Mercy is not getting what you do deserve,
Grace is getting what you do not deserve.
It seemed clever, so I adopted and often repeated those lines when defining those two important words. As a young pastor, I even posted it as a slogan on the signboard outside our church for passersby to digest.
In that model, what we deserved was God’s wrath, so we had effectively reduced the word mercy to withholding punishment. Praying “Lord, have mercy” was akin to pleading, “God, please don’t condemn me!” We could cite instances from the Bible where mercy was used in just that way.
However, over time, I’ve come to see a far more expansive definition of mercy in both Scripture and the prayer life of God’s people.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, one word for mercy (or tender mercies) is “rāham/ rāhem,” which is a homonym also translated womb. It compares God’s compassion toward us with a mother’s care for a child in her womb. The mercy of God tenderly surrounds, hides, and nurtures us. God knows our fragility and would no more forget us than a pregnant mother can overlook a baby growing inside her belly (see Isaiah 49:15). Mercy here is full of concern, compassion, and affection.
Another Hebrew word for mercy (or lovingkindness), hesed, includes God’s compassion, forgiveness, comfort, and healing care. My brother, Rodney, once co-founded and served as the primary nurse in an AIDS hospice called “House of Hesed.” Clearly, mercy in his context had nothing to do with begging for lenience. It was all about being the hands of the Great Physician and serving as compassionate “midwives” for those in palliative care.
The main Greek word for mercy (eleos/eleeo) used in the New Testament is another sound-alike pun with the word (eleion) for olives, olive trees, olive oil, lamp oil, anointing oil, and healing oil. Some scholars believe olive trees were actually named after mercy because the trees gave oil so abundantly and for so many goods that oil actually became an item of currency. The olive groves of the Palestinian region were and are glorious sources of provision, reflecting and symbolizing the generosity of God’s enduring and superabundant mercy.
With this rich backstory in the biblical words for mercy, we can now more correctly define mercy as every manifestation of God’s goodness toward his beloved children. Far more than withholding punishment, God’s many mercies refer to the myriad of ways in which we experience divine love, along with the promise, “His mercy endures forever” (see Psalm 136).
Further, it’s not that our prayers for mercy turn on the taps of God’s mercy. Rather, the mercies of God are an infinite spring that overflows into our lives and never runs dry. Our prayers for mercy are a simple way for anyone to orient themselves under the divine waterfall with open hands and uplifted grateful faces. And praying mercy for others is like pulling them under the waterfall with us.
Likewise, when believers across the centuries would gather to pray for mercy, their “litanies” would include requests to our heavenly Father, who is rich in mercy, that he might bless them with health, healing, peaceful times, good weather, abundant crops, safe travels, deliverance from danger and persecution, and a good ending to their lives. They would pray for wisdom for their spiritual and political leaders, help for those in hospitals and prisons, and restoration for those suffering poverty and disease. For all of these, they would pray together, “Lord, have mercy.” Absolutely every kind of help from heaven—direct or indirect—comes under (and flows over) the umbrella of mercy.
Practically speaking, I’ve found the prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” very helpful when I don’t know how to pray or feel helpless about some situation. When I hear of bad news, of great evils, or horrendous tragedies in the world, I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” knowing that God hears me and will answer in ways I cannot imagine. This allows me to surrender the burdens I cannot carry, situations I can’t control, problems I can’t solve, and people I can’t manage into God’s care. For a worrywart like me, “Lord, have mercy,” is a lifesaver for my mental health and emotional wellbeing!
Finally, in a very real sense, since God is Love, and since mercy is our experience of God’s love, then it’s completely fair to say that in my experience, God is mercy. What good news, then, that God’s mercy is always with us, for us, with the promise that it endures forever!