I cheated on her.” Tears welled up in Jim’s eyes as he looked across the room at his wife and continued. “I was a big shot in the business world. The pride got to me, and I thought I could do anything. I danced too close with someone at an event, one thing led to another, and … I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
It was the first time Jim and I ever met. We were at a dinner together with our spouses, and I’d asked for his story. And this was what he chose as a defining moment for his life. What surprised me most, however, was that the tears were not so much of sadness (the affair had been two decades ago), but of deep affection, from an inexhaustible well of gratitude for his wife, the love of his life.
The tears were not so much of sadness, but of deep affection, from an inexhaustible well of gratitude for his wife, the love of his life.
“She forgave me. I mean, she called me out for being an arrogant jerk and then set healthy boundaries. So I had to do my work for a season to own up to what I’d become, but she forgave me.” He looked as if he were about to break with joy as he stared with moist eyes across the room at her. “I love her so much.” What made this such a transformative moment in Jim’s life? He’d been shown mercy.
The Essence of God
Our God is a God of mercy. Jim’s story is an appropriate inroad to this divine attribute, because adultery is used throughout the Bible to describe the variety of ways we, as God’s people, have betrayed Him. We were created for intimacy and communion with the heavenly Father, but our idolatry and injustice have wreaked havoc on the relationship. Yet over and over again, like Jim’s wife, God reveals Himself to be merciful.
Mercy is not just something God does; it’s who He is. In Exodus, God reveals His name to Moses, and guess which attribute He opens with? Merciful. “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious” (Ex. 34:6 KJV). This is unprecedented.
God’s name speaks to His identity—the place that goes deeper than actions or behavior, grounded down into the roots of His essence. It is revolutionary to consider that the King of all the earth, in His heart of hearts, is “full of compassion” (Psalm 116:5 NIV). Like a pitcher filled to the brim and overflowing with wine, God’s identity spills over with the richness of His mercy and lovingkindness to His people.
The Hebrew word in both these passages, racham, can be translated as “mercy” or “compassion.” It’s often used in the context of forgiveness, such as when Asaph rejoiced that God “was merciful; he forgave their iniquities” (Psalm 78:38 NIV). Like Jim, we often experience the character of mercy most profoundly when we’re on the receiving end of forgiveness. It changes the direction of our story and reunites us with the intimacy and communion we were made for.
Mercy for Sinners
You and I, however, are often not merciful. King Solomon recognized that the righteous will care for the needs of not only people but also animals, whereas even “the compassion of the wicked is cruel” (Prov. 12:10). The prophet Isaiah laments an enemy whose “bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children” (Isa. 13:18 NIV).
Human beings can be coldhearted beasts.
Fortunately, by contrast, God’s mercy is inexhaustible. David cried out in deep distress, “Do not let me fall into the hand of man,” recognizing how merciless people can be, and instead pleaded, “Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord for His mercies are great” (2 Samuel 24:14). David recognized the all-surpassing greatness of divine compassion that never fails.
Similarly, in the face of great destruction, the prophet Jeremiah found hope in God’s unflinching character: “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail” (Lam. 3:22). This means our God is the great hope for sinners, and we can depend on the assurance of His faithful love even when we’ve been faithless.
God can’t be duped, however, nor will He permit His love to be mocked. While God is “slow to anger,” a hard-hearted testing of His patience is a bad idea. Resolute rebellion is ill-advised. Israel frequently experienced judgment, in the withdrawal of His mercy. Yet even then, in the barren land of exile, they knew they were not ultimately abandoned but found hope in God’s unfailing covenant love (Neh. 9:17; Neh. 9:19; Neh. 9:31).
A Merciful Savior
Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s mercy. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant with the Savior, she rejoices in song, praising God whose “mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation,” and who “has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful … forever” (Luke 1:50; Luke 1:54-55 NIV).
Mercy is also a main characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. After exorcising a legion of demons, He tells the liberated man to go home and proclaim how God has “had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). The sick, the blind, and the afflicted cry out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” and He gladly responds, healing and making them whole (Matt. 15:22; Matt. 17:15; Mark 10:47-48). It is because of God’s great forgiveness, Jesus teaches, that the immoral tax collector can cry out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” and be heard (Luke 18:13).
Ultimately, it is at the cross that the mercy of God is most extravagantly shown. Here Christ meets the claims of justice in order to set us free. Here we plumb the depths of a God who is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) and reveals Himself to be the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
God’s mercy also forms us as the body of Christ. As Peter puts it, “you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). Like a sculpture shaped by skillful hands, we have been chiseled into form by the extravagant love of God.
The Lord’s mercy provokes worship. When we recognize the extent of God’s compassion on our behalf, it pours fuel on the flames of devotion and evokes affection from the depths of our heart. As Paul encourages us, “by the mercies of God, to present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1), we offer ourselves in worship to the One who offered Himself for us.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft