Mercy—What Part Does It Play in Your Life?
DO YOU consider yourself a merciful person? Christ Jesus said: “Continue becoming merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Are you doing that? How can you tell?
Mercy, to many, brings thoughts of showing “more kindness than justice requires,” or “forbearance shown to an offender.” Like Shakespeare they say, “Mercy seasons justice.”
True, these are expressions of mercy, for it often does refer to being lenient in punishing an offender or showing clemency in judgment. But mercy involves much, much more than this. In fact, if we think of mercy only in those senses, we are missing the real meaning of mercy, taking too narrow a view of it. We could hardly become like our Creator if that is the sum of our understanding of mercy.
Look in a dictionary and you will see that mercy can also mean: “A blessing regarded as a manifestation of compassion” and “compassionate treatment of the unfortunate.” Yes, and these definitions come closer to the basic meaning of mercy as that quality is expressed in the ancient languages used to write the Bible.
INVESTIGATING THE BIBLICAL MEANING
Describing God’s personality, Psalm 145:8, 9 says: “Jehovah is gracious and merciful, . . . Jehovah is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works.” To present God’s wonderful quality of mercy the Hebrew writer here used the word ra·hhamʹ. Of course, we know that Jehovah does show mercy when he forgives repentant wrongdoers and shows forbearance to opposers. (Compare Psalm 51:1, 2; 103:3, 4; Daniel 9:9.) But is that the basic meaning of the word the psalmist used? Let us see.
Some Hebrew scholars believe the original source of ra·hhamʹ is a word meaning basically “to be soft and gentle.” They connect it with the word for “womb” (re·hhemʹ). So one Lexicon defines ra·hhamʹ as meaning “to glow, to feel warm with tender emotion; . . . to be compassionate.” How grand to know that this is a distinguishing quality of our God! He is merciful. And because mercy can be said to be the active expression of pity or compassion, this same Hebrew word is sometimes translated “pity.”
For example, at Isaiah 49:15 God says: “Can a wife forget her suckling so that she should not pity [ra·hhamʹ] the son of her belly?” What depth of feeling a mother normally has for the child of her womb! But what calls forth this quality as described in the Hebrew text by ra·hhamʹ? Has her suckling infant committed an offense so that the mother has to decide whether to show clemency or not? Not likely. Evidently this merciful feeling is stirred by her baby’s need, perhaps it being hungry, ill or experiencing some other cause of suffering. So she exercises tender compassion toward it. God shows mercy in similar expressions of compassion.
Take another example, that of Joseph in Egypt. On their second trip to Egypt in search of food, Joseph’s ten half brothers brought along Benjamin, his only full brother (from the same womb [re·hhemʹ] as Joseph was). On seeing Benjamin after so many years, Joseph’s “inward emotions [plural of ra·hhamʹ] were excited” toward his younger brother and Joseph left the room and gave way to tears. Was this a case of showing “compassionate treatment to an offender or adversary”—one of the meanings of mercy? No, for although Joseph’s half brothers were guilty of personal offense, Benjamin was not. Instead, Joseph’s act was one born of deep affection and merciful concern for this younger brother of his. What a richness this example gives to that Hebrew word that describes God’s mercy as well!—Gen. 43:30; 37:12-28; compare 1 Kings 3:25-27.
So, then, are you merciful in the Bible sense? You can see that mercy is not expressed just by holding back—as when refraining from punishing to the limit another’s offense or showing forbearance to an opposer. Rather it primarily relates to the compassion you feel and express toward those in difficulty, in need or at some disadvantage.
THE MERCIFUL WILL BE SHOWN MERCY
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Happy are the merciful, since they will be shown mercy.” (Matt. 5:7) Surely we want to be shown divine mercy. So we should want to know what is included in being merciful. That means finding out what the meaning of the word is as used in this text in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Here the Gospel writer used forms of the Greek word eʹle·os to describe mercifulness. We can see how closely it corresponds to the Hebrew word (just considered) by this definition in W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words: “ELEOS (ἔλεος) ‘is the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it.’” Other Greek words (such as oi·ktir·mosʹ and splagʹkhnon) convey the strong feeling of pity or warm kindness of which eʹle·os (“mercy”) is the active expression.
But, better than definitions are examples. What does Jesus’ own example tell us as to the part mercy should play in our lives?
JESUS SETS EXAMPLE IN MERCY
Prominent among those calling forth Jesus’ mercy were parents whose children were ill, the blind, the demon-possessed, the leprous. (Matt. 9:27-29; Luke 17:12-14) In response to their plea, “Have mercy on us,” Jesus performed miracles to relieve them. And he did so, not in a routine, apathetic or condescending way, but “moved with pity.”—Matt. 20:33, 34.
We can appreciate Jesus’ strong feeling more by noting that, in this last phrase, the Gospel writer used a verb (form of splagʹkhnon) that literally means “to feel the bowels yearn.” Yes, God’s Son felt deeply moved inside on seeing the needs of others.
This same word describes Jesus’ feeling upon seeing the crowds who gathered to hear him, for they were “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:34) And that same merciful feeling caused Jesus to provide those crowds with food so that they would not “give out on the road” on returning home. (Matt. 15:32) In all this depth of feeling for people in distress or need, resulting in acts of mercy, Jesus was but reflecting his Father’s wonderful qualities.—Compare Jeremiah 31:20.
It is not enough to feel compassion; we must express it if we would be merciful. In Jesus’ parable of the neighborly Samaritan, the Samaritan found a traveler lying beside the road, robbed and beaten. He was not only “moved with pity,” but he also “acted mercifully toward him,” treating his wounds and caring for him. Again we may note that no forgiveness of wrongdoing or judicial proceedings were involved. It was a case of feeling “sympathy with the misery of another, and especially sympathy manifest in act”—one of the definitions of the verb form of eʹle·os.—Luke 10:33-37.
These few examples help us to appreciate how much is involved in being merciful. Must we wait until someone causes us some personal offense or until someone violates some rule or law to show mercy? By no means, but we can show it to any in need of help, to complete strangers as well as to friends and those we love. Mercy is indeed compassion in action.
SHOWING MERCY IN OUR DAILY LIVES
Today is a time like that foretold by Jesus, a time when, along with the “increasing of lawlessness,” we see that ‘the love of the greater number has cooled off.’ (Matt. 24:12) As love for the true God diminishes, love for neighbor weakens. Selfishness, hardness, indifference to the problems and sufferings of others, even cruelty, have grown, and this seems especially true in cities and crowded areas. The modern industrial society, with its concern for mass production and big profit, has developed the “organizational man,” and men are often viewed as mere parts in a machine.
In such a time, how refreshing is the quality of mercy! How important that we appreciate its wide range of expression and see the need to manifest it every day of our lives! But what can we do in practical ways?
The greatest need of people today is spiritual help. They are, in the majority, spiritually starved, blind, groping about in the confusing conditions that are upon us with no real hope for the future. They are “like sheep without a shepherd.” Moreover, God’s Word shows that a “great tribulation” is due to break soon upon all the earth and that those who would escape need to inform themselves now of his provisions. (Matt. 24:3-8, 21, 22, 36-42) What are we doing to show mercy to such ones? Jesus and his disciples were especially active in merciful giving of spiritual gifts of far greater value than material things. (John 6:35; Acts 3:1-8) They preached and taught the truth of God’s Word to others. Do we do that?
Does such preaching and teaching, however, guarantee that we are fully satisfying the requirement of being merciful? Jesus said: “Give as gifts of mercy the things that are inside.” (Luke 11:41) You may share in carrying the Word of life to others, perhaps going right to their homes. However, in doing this, why are you doing it? Do you feel that by doing so for a certain number of hours each month you thereby prove yourself righteous before God? Or are your efforts rather ‘a gift of mercy that comes from inside,’ an expression of mercy from a loving heart? And, while going to visit persons who are perhaps strangers to you, are you careful also to show mercy to those you know, your own family, those who are your brothers in the faith?
We may remember that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day felt they had God’s favor because they scrupulously paid tithes, made the required sacrifices and abstained from secular work on sabbath days. They were critical of any who did not measure up to their idea of what obeying the Law meant. But Jesus told them: “If you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.’” True, being under the Mosaic law they were required to observe those things mentioned, but not to the point of disregarding “the weightier matters of the Law,” including mercy.—Matt. 9:1-13; 12:1-7; 23:23.
How about us? We may be endeavoring to serve God, regularly, even systematically and routinely; we may set aside certain time for performing services and worship and may make monetary contributions to advance God’s pure worship. This is fine; but what is our motive? Could we be so concerned with gaining God’s approval for ourselves that we fail to notice the needs of others around us?
For example, what of those with whom we meet for study of God’s Word? Does our mercy come into play here? Many people in Christendom, as we know, are “churchgoers” but betray a shallow motive. They go to fulfill a ‘religious duty,’ for social benefits and conversation, or to enjoy a ‘quiet atmosphere contributing to inner tranquillity.’ Their interest is in themselves, not others. If we are merciful, however, our interest will be in others; not in what they can do for us as much as what we can do for them.
Do we notice any who seem to be in poor health and do we show concern for them? Do we upbuild them by expressing appreciation for their faith that moved them to come to the meeting? What of those who seem timid, lonely, worried or depressed? Do we feel for them so that we are moved to show interest in them and try to increase their happiness? What a fine spirit such mercy builds up in any group of God’s servants!
MATERIAL “GIFTS OF MERCY”
But while giving in spiritual ways is the most vital, this by no means eliminates showing mercy in material ways. When, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of “making gifts of mercy” he evidently referred to gifts to the needy, to those experiencing poverty, adversity, illness, or other causes of difficulty. True, Jesus condemned the hypocritical persons who used such gifts to bring praise to themselves. But he did not downgrade or depreciate the giving itself. To the contrary, he told his disciples: “But you, when making gifts of mercy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, that your gifts of mercy may be in secret; then your Father who is looking on in secret will repay you.”—Matt. 6:1-4.
Dorcas was a Christian woman who “abounded in good deeds and gifts of mercy.” What did these consist of? When Peter arrived after Dorcas’ death, “all the widows presented themselves to him weeping and exhibiting many inner garments and outer garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them.” (Acts 9:36-41) Yes, she was a merciful woman. Whether she personally bore all the expense of making such garments for these widows, or whether she contributed her time, strength and talent only, the account does not say. Today, some of us may have little in the way of material means, but we can contribute time, energy and talent in performing deeds of mercy for others.
And, where our means allow, we can mercifully aid worthy ones in a financial way. The Law covenant specifically urged such mercy, warning against ‘hardening one’s heart or being closefisted toward poor brothers.’ (Deut. 15:7-10; compare Proverbs 19:17.) Christian congregations in the first century kept lists of widows who were given material aid. Their worthiness to be on this list required that these women also have a record of deeds of mercy, entertaining strangers, relieving those in tribulation, and similar good works. (1 Tim. 5:9, 10) Should we fear for the future and hesitate to use our funds to help the needy, thinking that we may ourselves come into need? The apostle Paul assured his brothers in Corinth that God would bless their ‘cheerful giving,’ supplying them with what they needed.—2 Cor. 9:6-14.
What a meaningful, satisfying and rich life the merciful lead! Happy are you if you are among them, for God will make you the object of his mercy, now and in the days ahead.