Mercy reclaimed in an age of images and idols
By Bruce Clemenger. Reprinted with permission from Faith Today. Subscribe to read more of Bruce's columns.
Imagine Moses on Mount Sinai encountering the Almighty whose name he did not yet know, the Creator of the universe, the one true God. He pleaded to see God’s glory, to see the face of God. All other peoples had images of their gods (and the prohibition of having an image of God was to be the second commandment).
God revealed Himself by saying, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6, esv). Both mercy and grace are used here. Grace is usually explained as receiving something good we do not deserve, whereas mercy is being spared from bad consequences we do deserve.
Grace is by far the more popular of the two today. I often hear the word used in conversations and sermons. John Newton’s 1772 poem "Amazing Grace" is probably still the most familiar Christian hymn today. In comparison, mercy is not a word we hear as often. But, in fact mercy does precede grace.
Each instance of God’s mercy and love is remarkable, but taken together they are astounding.
God is not obliged to be merciful. Mercy is behind and prior to the grace God offers to us. There would be no relationship where a holy God can extend gracious gifts to us if, at first, God did not mercifully extend a relationship with us beyond what we deserve.
After encountering God on Mount Sinai, Moses testifies about God’s mercy and compassion to the people of Israel. One follows the other – out of God’s mercy, God is compassionate.
Each instance of God’s mercy and love is remarkable, but taken together they are astounding. Think of the psalmist who cries out, "Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old" (Psalm 25).
We have personally received such mercy in Jesus Christ – for Jesus is the incarnation of mercy, taking on our sins, the rejection we deserved, so we could be spared. That is amazing.
Do we live as those who have experienced God’s mercy?
To act with grace to someone, to give them a gift, does not mean they will understand their need for mercy. And while doing good is what Christians are expected to do (Ephesians 2:10, 1 Timothy 6:18), it is not guaranteed to stir people to be aware of their need for mercy from God.
In fact, in our age of images and idols lulling souls into complacency about sin, mercy and grace can quickly lead to pride for the giver (I’m so generous) and even for the receiver (I must have deserved that).
A narcissistic mindset can convince us that we are entitled to mercy and grace, and cause our hearts to be hardened, quenching the Holy Spirit.
But when we experience God’s mercy – when we realize we are saved from the consequences of sin thanks to the generosity of our Holy God – then the Holy Spirit works in us a life-changing gratitude. Our hearts have the opportunity to become the good and tender soil for God’s purposes, where the Holy Spirit plants and grows life-giving fruit that blesses those around us as well as ourselves. And people will know God as the God above all other gods, images and idols.
But there is more to mercy as the parable of the unforgiving servant reminds us (Matthew 18). That servant received mercy but quickly hardened his heart, took that mercy for granted and ignored the next opportunity he had to show mercy to others in their season of brokenness and failure. Receiving mercy in our world easily skews into unlimited licence to go on living selfishly or judging harshly those around us honestly wrestling with sin in a repentant and penitent state.
God’s mercy and call for us to truly understand speaks truth to the faulty premise of individual autonomy and to the idols of our Western culture.
God’s mercy and call for us to truly understand speaks truth to the faulty premise of individual autonomy and to the idols of our Western culture. Our true accountability is to God. God’s mercy helps explain God’s patience with all humanity, wanting us to know the truth of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai, in the Law, by the prophets and ultimately and completely in Christ Jesus.
The evangelical call is to testify about having experienced God’s mercy. We are sinful people who have acknowledged we can’t save ourselves. We have repented, cried to God for help and received God’s amazing mercy and compassion. With thanksgiving, we are to love mercy, be merciful and proclaim how human mercy is just a weak imitation of the great mercy of God.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger