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Why 'Lord Have Mercy' Is Such a Powerful Prayer

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One of my favorite songs is “Lord Have Mercy” by Sovereign Grace. The first verse goes “O God, we come before Your throne, and in our weakness we confess.” The singer entreats “O Lord, have mercy on us.” The song is a humble prayer. David in Psalm 51:1 declares “Have mercy on me, O God.” Why, after 3,000 years, is 'Lord Have Mercy' such a powerful prayer?

The Meaning of ‘Lord Have Mercy’ in the Bible

Dawn Wilson wrote that “in the Bible, God’s mercy means His pity, compassion, and kindness toward people. [...] Mercy triumphs over judgment but refusing God’s mercy is disastrous.” (From “What is Mercy”) The Greek for mercy, “eleos,” means “the act of withholding deserved punishment,” said Philip Wijaya in “What is the Difference Between Grace and Mercy.

When David begged God for mercy, he was saying essentially I am a sinner who deserves punishment; please, have patience and pity on me, a weak and evil man, and do not condemn me. Though people in the Old Testament were saved by faith just like we are, Jesus wasn't known in full as the ultimate intermediary and atonement for our sin. Previous intermediaries such as Moses, Noah, and Abraham had pleaded with the Lord for the sake of their people, and while God did rescue, he also punished severely.

Noah and his family were saved, but the world was flooded. Abraham begged on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he could not find ten good men, so the Lord sent fire. In Deuteronomy 13:7 Moses interceded for Israel, praying that the Lord would “turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy.” Jarrett tells us in his article “What is the Biblical Understanding of the Wrath of God?” that “God’s wrath is not angry retribution against those who have offended God,” but “his righteous judgment against those who do evil.” We are sinful, disobedient towards God. He is too holy to come near our sinfulness.

David rightly feared God who is both terrifying and loving at the same time. David’s plea required courage, reverence, and humility.

What Does it Mean to Pray ‘Lord Have Mercy’?

1. It means we know we have sinned and deserve punishment. There are consequences for sin. Even though Jesus paid for our sin, we cheapen grace when we act like we can do what we want. When we pray “Lord Have Mercy,” it’s a sign to God that we see our sinfulness and repent.

2. We accept his grace. The only way to receive God’s mercy is by accepting the grace of Christ’s sacrifice and believing in his resurrection.

3. We remember that Christ took the wrath we deserved. The price had to be paid, even though our Father is merciful. He can’t ignore sin. Let’s be clear: praying 'Lord have mercy' doesn’t mean we think God might change his mind and condemn authentic believers, or that Jesus must come back and die again for us, but we can’t skip over the agony of the cross to the happy ending of his resurrection. Repentance involves remembering the cost of sin.

4. We realize our need for God. We want others to respond mercifully when we ask for forgiveness, but we NEED God’s mercy. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

5. We must approach our Father with reverence and tenderness. God welcomes the prayers of his people, and the Psalms are a model of personal prayer. But David doesn’t demand anything; he acknowledges honestly “against you, you only, have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) David humbly begs “cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (v.11) God loves us, but we aren’t in control, he is, and the Lord “does whatever He pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)

6. Mercy is painful. Purge me with hyssop,” David cried. (Psalm 51:7) The Lord heals his people by a refining process that is sometimes violent and sudden. It’s the spiritual equivalent of having your stomach pumped to remove poison. Don’t be surprised if, when you pray for the mercy you have already received through Jesus, the joy of forgiveness is joined by a period of suffering as you face the refiner’s fire.

Why Is it Important to Ask God for Mercy?

1. Mercy is not automatic. Universalists believe that everyone is saved by the love of God; that the crucifixion alone was sufficient, and no one needs to ask for salvation. Bible-believing Christians, however, know better. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

2. Only God can give it. We can’t judge ourselves or anyone else, so we cannot condemn or offer mercy. We’re not good enough - good karma is a fallacy. Even the most self-effacing individual doesn’t realize how depraved she is without Christ. We must rely on the character of God; on his “abundant mercy.” (v.1)

3. We must repent. Psalm 51 doesn’t stop with a request; David lays his sin bare for the Lord to deal with. It’s no good to say 'Lord have mercy' and then go back to our old ways. Our desperate desire must be that God will “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (v.2)

4. We want to please God. David’s prayer was to “restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and “let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” (vv.12, 8) David was a singing, dancing, joyful king who wrote “delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

5. It pleases God to be merciful. What Father, when asked for bread, will give his child a stone? (Matthew 7:9) God loves to show us mercy so that we can renew a “right spirit” (v.10) and be close to him. Think of the Prodigal Father in Luke 15 who, when he saw his younger son returning home, “ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (v.15) David puts his faith in the promise that with “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) he will also be embraced by the Father.

A Prayer to Ask for God’s Mercy

Father, we are sinners. We cannot make repayment for our own sin but we ask you to forgive us our specific transgressions, whatever they are - pride, greed, indifference, or anger. We humbly and thankfully repent, assured of your forgiveness and tenderness bought by Christ at the cross. Thank you that your mercy goes further, deeper: that we are not only forgiven, but we are brought to new life by Christ. Thank you that, in your mercy, you didn’t leave us in a pit of our own making but raised us from the dead with Jesus. In his name and for your glory we pray, amen.

When we ask for God’s mercy it’s important to remember that we aren’t left waiting for an answer. If we believe we are separated from God by our sin, then we haven’t believed Christ is enough. Will you be your own judge and condemn yourself? In truth, you can’t be, because only God can judge. For those who are covered in the blood of the lamb, he looks down and sees his faithful Son Jesus. That’s his mercy. Rejecting it won’t undo Christ’s suffering on the cross, and doesn’t honor it. Take the gift already provided and abide in the one who delights to give us many good gifts, “more than we could ever ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/thekopmylife


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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This article is part of our Prayer resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Visit our most popular prayers if you are wondering how to pray or what to pray. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.

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