When We Realize What Mercy Means
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:17,18).
MERCY IS A MUCH MISUNDERSTOOD CONCEPT. It is the central idea of the gospel of Christ, but even as important as it is, the idea of mercy is often misconstrued. What mercy means is that God is willing to do for us what WE DO NOT DESERVE TO HAVE DONE. But we tend to make two mistakes: we suppose (1) that God extends His mercy to those who deserve it and withholds it from those who don’t, or (2) that after receiving God’s forgiveness we are somehow more deserving in His sight than we were before.
It is wrong to think of the gospel of Christ as a means of earning back what we now wish we’d never thrown away. It is not an insurance plan for our pride. Neither is it an insurance plan for our sense of self-sufficiency and self-worth. What the gospel asks us to accept is the fact that having sinned, we are permanently and forever afterward UNWORTHY of life in God. Our vessels are broken, and we can never, ever be what we were before we sinned. When Paul said, “I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9), he was not using his tenses carelessly. The sins he referred to had truly been forgiven, but Paul was STILL unworthy to be called an apostle. The thing about the gospel that enraptured him was not the reinstatement of his self-esteem but the contemplation of a Mercy that received him despite his ongoing unworthiness. Paul had to obey the gospel to be forgiven (Acts 22:16), but having done so, he was still a person with a very sad story.
Are these words overly pessimistic? Are we denying the deep joy and the thirst-quenching fulfillment that await us in God? No, our point is simply that we need to be careful about what we expect from God. The joy that is available to us is not the happiness of restored pride, but the thrill of pure, undiluted MERCY. And that is why the Lord has never been sought by the self-righteous but only by the ragged and the ruined. “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
Open thy gate of mercy, gracious God! My soul flies through these wounds to seek out thee. (William Shakespeare)