Dr. Richard L. Strauss
January 20, 1980
Nearly all of us are familiar with Murphy's law, and many of us may even believe it: "Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you expect. And if anything can go wrong, it will...at the worst possible moment." Murphy suggested some corollaries to his law. One is that everything you decide to do costs more than first estimated. Another is that if you improve or tinker with something long enough, eventually it will break.
If you were to boil down the essence of Murphy's law and all its corollaries into one terse statement, it would probably be: Life is miserable and nothing is going to turn out right.
Joseph L. Felix wrote a humorous exposition of Murphy's law from a spiritual perspective and called it Lord, Have Murphy! The title is appropriate because it makes us think about another cry heard from the lips of miserable people all through the gospel records, "Lord, have mercy!" And mercy has a direct relationship to misery.
What is mercy? Do you know? The most common response I get to that question is a blank stare. The word is used literally hundreds of times in the Bible, and we have read it over and over again. Yet it is one of those concepts we find difficult to put into words. The Psalmist said, "Our God is merciful" (Psalm 116:5). That's one of His attributes. What does that mean? What is it?
First, mercy is God's relief for the miserable.
1. Mercy Is God's Relief for the Miserable
Nowhere is the essence of mercy unveiled for us any more clearly than in our Lord's parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The man in that story was miserable. There was no question about that. He had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite in the story showed no concern whatsoever.
"But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion" (Luke 10:33, NASB).
Now that word compassion is not our word for mercy, but I must say this: The word most often translated "mercy" in the King James Old Testament, as well as the New Testament Greek word for mercy, both convey strong feelings of pity, sympathy, compassion, and affection. The Old Testament word is often translated "loving-kindness." When God looks at suffering people, He feels love, tenderness and kindness toward them in their need.
When we read that God is merciful, or that God has mercy, we may be assured that He is feeling our misery just as intensely as we are. The reason we can come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need is because as the verse before that indicates, the occupant of that throne is a merciful High Priest who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15, 16).
But mercy doesn't stop with tender feelings.
"...[The Samaritan] came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you' (Luke 10:34, 35 NASB).
The Samaritan's compassionate feelings led him to a practical demonstration of kindness, concrete actions that were intended to relieve the man's misery and distress.
When Jesus asked the lawyer to whom He was speaking which one of the three passers-by was neighbor to the victim, he answered immediately, "The one who showed mercy toward him" (Luke 10:37). He summed up those feelings of steadfast love, which were followed by helpful acts of kindness as mercy.
Because God is full of mercy, He acts to relieve our distress. Psalm 136 is a good place to look if you want to see some of the things He does. The whole Psalm magnifies God's mercy. Every one of its 26 verses tells us something about God, then concludes with the words, "for His mercy endures forever."
Every verse. It gets kind of repetitious but it's trying to tell us something. First, it mentions God's goodness, then acts of creation, then moves to His relationship with His people Israel. For example:
- He delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors (Psalm 136:-10-12)
- God took them safely through the Red Sea (Psalm 136:13-15)
- He led them through the wilderness (Psalm 136:16)
- He gave them victory over powerful kings who threatened to destroy them (Psalm 136:17-20)
- God brought them at last into their promised land (Psalm 136:21, 22)
But verse 23 gets to the heart of it.
"He remembered us in our low estate; His love endures forever" (Psalm 136:23).
God remembered them in their miserable and humiliating condition, and He did something to help them.
Mercy is God's attitude of tender compassion toward us in our distress that causes Him to act on our behalf and to relieve our suffering when He knows that is best.
It might be profitable for us to compare grace and mercy, since they are such closely related terms.
- Grace describes God's attitude toward guilty, helpless law breakers and rebels.
- Mercy describes His attitude toward those who are suffering and distressed.
You can remember the difference by the first letter of each word: grace for the guilty, mercy for the miserable.
The same sins that makes us guilty, however, also causes us most of our misery, so God must deal with our sin problem before He can relieve our distress. That's why we find both His grace and His mercy involved in providing our salvation.
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Ephesians 2:4-5, NASB).
In the mind of God, mercy comes first. God so loved us and cared about us in our miserable condition that in grace He gave His Son to die in our place. Mercy motivates His actions. But in the application of salvation to our lives, the order is reversed. Only after we receive God's gracious gift of salvation does He begin to alleviate the misery which our sin has cause us. We receive His grace then we enjoy His mercy. That is why in every one of the apostolic salutations where both words appear, grace precedes mercy (see 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 John 3).
But whichever order is proper, one reason we can enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life because our God is rich in mercy. As the Apostle Paul described it to Titus.
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Titus 3:5a).
In his letter to the Romans, he called us "vessels of mercy" (Romans 9:23), containers into which He has poured His mercy. And now that He has saved us, He continues to extend His mercy to us. Jeremiah said His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22, 23). A fresh supply of mercy awaits us when we open our eyes to greet every new day. God is there to meet us and to help us through our difficult times.
Unfortunately we do not always recognize God's mercies. Somehow it seems easier to focus on our misery and misfortune than on God's mercy. The people of Israel had that problem. God had promised David in a solemn covenant that His mercy would never depart from David's family (2 Samuel 7:12-16—especially verse 15). Solomon referred to that promise shortly after he became king (1 Kings 3:6; 2 Chronicles 1:8) and again in his prayer of dedication for the temple (2 Chronicles 6:42). The same promise is the subject of Psalm 89 where mercy is mentioned seven times (1, 2, 14, 24, 28, 33, 49).
"Lord, where is Your former loving-kindness, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?" (Psalm 89:49).
Isn't that the way we all feel at times? "Lord, where are all the mercies You promised me? All I can see are the problems." We might be tempted to think Murphy was right after all. I had a week like that, and though I'd already prepared this message, I didn't get it out until yesterday and I thought, "You fool! You haven't been enjoying God's mercy this week!"
When we feel like that, we need to turn to a passage like Psalm 103 and begin to count our blessings.
Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise His holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all His benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His deeds to the people of Israel:
A more literal rendering of verse 4 would be, "...who crowns you with mercy and tender compassion." And if we cannot relate to anything else in the psalm, we can certainly relate to the aspect of God's mercy which the Psalmist describes in verses 8 through 12. There we learn that God's mercy is not only His relief for the miserable, it is also His restraint toward the blameworthy.
2. Mercy Is God's Restraint toward the Blameworthy
I have heard it said that grace is giving us what we don't deserve while mercy is holding back what we do deserve. That is not the major difference in the two terms, but there does seem to be an element of truth in the statement.
"The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" (Psalm 103:8).
The subject here is God's super-abounding supply of mercy. Notice how it causes Him to act toward us.
He will not always accuse, nor will He harbor His anger forever; He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:9-10).
God's mercy restrains Him from giving us what our sins deserve.
That concept is found in other passages of Scripture as well. When Moses pleaded with God to forgive His people rather than destroy them after their crass exhibition of unbelief at Kadesh Barnea, he made his case on among the things the basis of the greatness of God's mercy (Numbers 14:19). When Daniel prayed for forgiveness for the people of his day, again it was on the basis of God's mercy (Daniel 9:4, 9). Jeremiah probably made it clearer than anyone when he boldly declared, "It is because of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed" (Lamentations 3:22).
If it weren't for God's mercy, neither you nor I would be in this room today. We would have long ago been zapped.
Some people say, "I don't want any favors from God. I just want what I deserve. I don't think they really know what they are saying. The human heart is filled with maliciousness, covetousness, selfishness, pride, envy, strife, adulteries, lies, blasphemies, and every form of wickedness. If we get what we deserved we would feel the fury and sting of all God's righteous wrath against sin. It isn't justice we need, it's mercy—the compassion that shows forbearance when justice demands punishment.
And that is exactly what God has to offer.
"For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:11-12).
What magnificent mercy! He looks on us hell-deserving sinners with compassion. He sympathizes with us in our plight, then proceeds to remove our transgressions from us as far as our minds can imagine. Some may protest, "Well, if God's mercy is so great, why doesn't He save everybody?"
The Psalmist said His mercy is reserved for those who fear Him (v. 11), a term that signifies reverential trust. He will not force His mercy on us any more than He will force His grace on us. If we choose to resist Him and spurn His offer of mercy, He will permit us to have justice instead.
Mercy is reserved for believers.
"You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to You" (Psalm 86:5).
Quite obviously, the call must be made in faith. There were outstanding illustrations of that during the earthly ministry of Christ. On one occasion after Jesus raised Jairus' daughter from the dead, two blind men followed Him crying out, "Have mercy on us, Son of David" (Matthew 9:27, NASB). There were fully aware of their plight and the distress it had caused them, and they longed for mercy.
"When He entered the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, 'Do you believe that I am able to do this?' They said to Him, 'Yes, Lord.' Then He touched their eyes, saying, 'It shall be done to you according to your faith'" (Matthew 9:28-29, NASB).
The personal appropriation and the enjoyment of God's mercy come when we believe.
While that episode has to do with physical-healing, the principle is applicable to salvation as well. God offers deliverance from the just penalty of sin to those who will acknowledge their need and entrust themselves to His mercy by faith. And for them, the people who have become the special objects of His mercy, to whom He has extended His merciful salvation, whose debt of sin He has cancelled, and upon whom He showers His fresh daily mercies, His mercy takes on another dimension. It is His requirement for the believer.
3. Mercy Is God's Requirement for the Believer
Again, this truth is revealed in one of Jesus' parables, this time a story about an unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35). He owed his master the immense sum of about ten million dollars in today's dollars. How he ever incurred a debt of that magnitude we are not told, but it is obvious that on a salary of a few cents a day he could never pay it back. I think Jesus chose this number to make a point. Everybody would understand that there was no way he could ever pay it back. The servant was in a miserable predicament. On a salary of one denarius a day, there was no way he could pay his debt in many lifetimes! Yet somehow he thought he could pay it back and begged for an extension of time.
"So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt" (Matthew 18:26-27, NASB).
What a beautiful illustration of mercy! First, there was the intense feeling of sympathy, followed by an unprecedented act of kindness in which he held back the punishment he could have exacted and forgave the servant the entire debt, more than the miserable creature ever could have hoped for. That's mercy!
Yet the man never seemed to grasp the significance of what happened to him. It seems as though he never even heard that his debt was wiped out. He went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a mere $20, took him by the throat and demanded payment. When he couldn't pay, he required the fullest extent of the law and had him thrown into jail. When the master heard what he had done, he was incensed. "Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow-slave, even as I had mercy on you?" (Matthew 18:33, NASB).
We as believers have received an enormous measure of God's mercy. We have been forgiven a debt of sin we could never repay and have been blessed with daily mercies we can never number.
Now God wants us to show the same kind of mercy to others—to have the same tender feelings of sympathy toward them in their misery the same eagerness to minister to them and help them in their times of distress, the same willingness to forgive them when they wrong us. Mercy is required of a believer.
When we begin to understand how much mercy God extended to us, we will be merciful to others.
The prophet Micah reminded God's Old Testament people of that responsibility. He described God's mercy when he said:
"You will again have compassion on us; You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19).
But he also made the application to the lives of the people. It's a great description of the requirement of a believer.
"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
I wonder whether the needs of other people move us to action. The Pharisees of Jesus' day surely didn't love mercy. He indicted them on several occasions for being such sticklers about every little detail of the law, while ignoring the more important matter of mercy (see Matthew 12:7; 23:23). Could that describe some modern American Christians as well? They have long lists of precise rules they try to live by and force others to live by, but the misery of other people never seems to move them.
God's merciful heart aches over the misery which man's sin has brought to the world. It aches. And when we get to know Him intimately, our hearts will ache as well. And not only will our hearts ache, but our arms will reach out and our homes will open and our wallets will unfold, and we will find great joy in relieving some of the misery in this world.
A couple weeks ago a man came to my study. (He may be here this morning so I hope he forgives me for telling this story, but it's worth telling.) He came to my office and he began to weep. And it took him nearly ten minutes for him to get control of himself. And when he got himself together he told me why he was crying. You know why? Because God had blessed him immensely and he couldn't understand why, with so many people suffering in the world, God had blessed him so abundantly. That was an expression of mercy. That moved me.
I wonder if you've ever wept over the needs of other people. That's the kind of feeling God wants us to have. And not just the feeling, but the action that follows it and moves out and does something about those people.
Most of us would like to be wise Christians. Let me show you real wisdom from God's perspective. It is full of mercy and good fruits.
"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17).
God wants us to be "full of mercy." Get to know Him as the "Father of mercies" (2 Corinthians 1:3). Meditate on His mercy, and as you grow in His likeness, mercy will become an increasing part of your lifestyle, and then the beautiful shepherd Psalm will take on new meaning for us:
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 23:6).
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
If you're not sure you're in God's family, and that you are the object of God's special mercy, and that you will be in God's house forever, you can make sure. You say, "Well you don't know my background. You don't know the kind of things I've been into." Maybe I don't but it doesn't really matter because God knows.
The Apostle Paul felt that way when God saved him. Paul said he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent aggressor, the chief of sinners. Yet he says he obtained mercy (1 Timothy 1:13-16).
If God's mercy is broad enough to encompass the Apostle Paul, dear friend, it's broad enough to cover you. God is ready to reach out in mercy today, to forgive your sin, and deliver you from the just penalty of your sin. He will give you His everlasting salvation if you call on Him to do so. Repent of your sin and ask His Son Jesus to come into your life.
The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.
Psalm 145:8 KJV
Continue to AT-15: Slow to Anger