Sitting in front of a huge slab of Mile High Chocolate Cake, I exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy!” People often use that phrase—or a similar one, “Mercy me!”—when facing something monstrous, enormous, or wondrous. We say it with a look of surprise, a sigh when we’re overwhelmed, or a huge smile—depending on the situation.
Yet how many people in our culture fully grasp the meaning of mercy, especially when it pertains to the mercy of God? There is amazing power in praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” as the tax collector did in Luke 18:13.
An examination of this prayer can lead to greater appreciation of God’s mercy and our need for it. First, let’s look to our Creator God, the source of mercy.
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“God...” – The Father of Mercy
The penitent’s prayer begins with “God….” To understand mercy, we must go to our Creator. One of the most maligned characteristics of God is His wrath. People say they don’t want an “angry God,” so they reject the reality of His wrath. As a result, they don’t have reverent fear of God and they don’t fear hell.
To only proclaim the love and mercy of God without juxtaposing it with His wrath is to pervert the Gospel. Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote, “If God is not a God of wrath and vengeance, why should we fly to Christ for refuge? The grace and the mercy and the love and the compassion and the gentleness of God don’t become precious to you if you haven’t seen the wrath and the anger of God.”
But in balance, God truly is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). His mercy is connected to His love (Psalm 86:5; Ephesians 2:4). The Hebrew word for “mercy” is hesed, meaning “steadfast love.”
In the West, Christians tend to think of mercy as acquittal, but the word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos, referencing a soothing oil, applied to comfort or heal someone. God’s healing mercy is related to His great compassion for His suffering, sinful children.
God is rich in mercy—able to share abundant mercy that never ends; and our Father God uses His mercy with sovereign purpose. “Our God is not just powerful,” David Mathis wrote. “He is not simply a God of uncompromising justice. He is the mercy-having God.” When we seek Him in the Bible, we discover, “when God shows His mercy, He does so with utter intentionality and strength.”
The Distinction between Mercy and Justice
God’s abundant mercy is not the same as His sure justice. We need to be sure we understand the difference. Most Christians know the distinction between grace—God’s unmerited favor—and mercy, which is God not giving us the punishment we deserve for our sins; but many miss the distinction between mercy and justice.
Dr. D. James Kennedy wrote, “What we need is mercy, not justice.” He described the distinction between mercy and justice. “We want justice,” he said. “We want everything to be fair. God is a just God, and we tend to know deep down what is right. In God’s justice, He will by no means clear the guilty.” All have sinned (Romans 3:23), and because God is just, He must punish evil. With mercy, “God does not treat us as we deserve,” Kennedy said.
We all have a divine appointment with our Creator, and we all have a choice now whether we will receive the mercy of God or the justice of God. Those who have not received the mercy of God in the Lord’s substitutionary death for their sins will face a final judgment where Jesus will be their judge (Hebrews 9:27; John 5:22).
But those who receive the mercy of God in Christ during this life will someday stand before the Lord at the Judgment Seat of Christ—sometimes referred to as the Bema Seat—where the works of God’s redeemed children will be examined regarding their faithfulness, service, obedience, etc., and what “crowns” or rewards they may receive (2 Corinthians 5:10).
“...Have Mercy...” – The Need for Mercy
The prayer continues with a desperate cry:“have mercy.” Receiving the mercy of God is our most crucial need. God has no pleasure in judging the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9), and in this prayer, the supplicant recognizes mercy can only come from Him. We all need mercy, but we don’t always recognize or admit our need.
God is incredibly patient in calling us to turn from sin, but we shouldn’t take His patience for granted. The cry for mercy must be linked to repentance. God gave sinful Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:1-5)—and they did! But He offered people an opportunity to repent for 120 years before the flood came (Genesis 6:3); and He offered the wicked Canaanites—people who knew about Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh—40 years, one generation, to repent before he destroyed all but Rahab and those in her house (Joshua 2).
All people need mercy for salvation, and the greatest act of mercy is in the person of Jesus (1 Peter 2:24). As John Stott said, “The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales.” In other words, we cannot earn grace and mercy; but thankfully, mercy is the heart of God in providing a means to be redeemed.
Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote, “He loves to show mercy. He delights to show mercy. He hates to show judgment, but He will show judgment when He has to. It is not His will that any should perish, but many will perish because they refuse His offer of mercy. God never judges without warning and without an opportunity to repent.”
“...On Me...” – The Intimacy of Mercy
The prayer continues with these words: “on me.” In the Scriptures, God showed His mercy to individuals as intimate extensions of His love. David Mathis wrote that Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Paul each saw God’s mercy in different ways (Exodus 33:19; Psalm 51:1; Lamentations 3:22-31; Romans 9:16). God also showed mercy to an adulterous woman (John 8:6-11) and to Saul of Tarsus who was on a murderous crusade against the early church (Acts 7:54-58; Acts 9:5).
Crying out for God to have mercy on us is deeply personal. It admits desperate personal need. Our cry seeks forgiveness for personal sins and rebellion against God. It is only in this personal sense that we begin to understand the power of mercy to change us.
The Father’s mercies to us as individuals are fresh and expansive every day as He continually shows compassion and forgiveness. Like the father of the Prodigal Son, He does not hesitate. He does not stand afar off.
He comes to us with open arms, so ready to forgive. His mercy is sweetly intimate.
“... a Sinner.” – The Power of Mercy
The final words of the prayer are “a sinner.” One of the most amazing verses in Scripture is Romans 5:8—“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We must seek God for saving mercy because we are sinners. Jesus didn’t die for us because we make mistakes, although mistakes may reflect a sinful heart. He died for us because we all have the seed of ungodly rebellion within us and need to be saved from God’s just wrath against sin. Christ died for sinners. What extravagant mercy!
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The Blessings of Mercy
The blessings of this prayer are what God does for us after we’ve prayed!
First, mercy brings us deliverance or salvation. At its core, mercy is forgiveness, so we are no longer condemned (Romans 8:1; Romans 4:8). In His mercy, we also find healing for our souls—peace with God. Our lives are eternally changed.
Then, the Lord continues to pardon us of daily sins because of the cross. He provides so many benefits for us, some spelled out in Psalm 103. He allows us to petition at His throne of grace where we may find even more mercy and grace. Because of His mercies, He gives us the privilege to present our bodies for transformation. And because we’ve been shown mercy, we can cooperate with God’s plans by doing the many works He ordained for us.
The Outflow of Mercy
The power of this prayer does not end with us! God’s mercy is the motivation for us to show mercy to others. His mercy teaches us how to be more merciful (Matthew 12:7; Hosea 6:6).
Luke said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Thinking about how much God has forgiven us—blotting out our sins—should change how we view others’ sins. We should be more patient, quicker to forgive, and to give others the benefit of the doubt, offering grace.
Once we’ve been deeply touched by God’s mercy and felt that sense of relief, we will have a reference point when we stray from Him. As Charles Swindoll wrote, “Try hard not to forget what life was like before Christ and you will be a frequent visitor at the gate of mercy.”
When we remember, that should motivate us to proclaim the gospel of mercy and grace to everyone.
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Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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.