I used to think I was merciful simply because I felt others’ pain. If I’d lived long ago, I could easily have been hired to be a professional mourner, wailing through a perfect stranger’s funeral. But it turns out, that’s not mercy after all.
While mercy is often accompanied by tears, it’s much more than feelings and emotions. It’s an act of the will. It involves not only seeing a need and empathizing with it, but doing something about it. In Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ words, mercy is both "inward sympathy and outward acts in relation to the sorrows and sufferings of others."
Mercy was on full display the day the Samaritan man met the needs of a complete stranger (while the religious folk passed by on the opposite side of the street!). If you’re like me, you’re no "Good Samaritan." You could be, mind you, if only thinking of others’ needs was as easy as thinking of your own! But it’s not. So you’re not.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t seem to think being merciful is optional for the true Christian. After describing a Christian’s character in the first four beatitudes (poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), Jesus moves to how Christians relate to others in the last four beatitudes. Because what you do flows out of who you are. As Dorothy Patterson puts it, "A passion for God means compassion for others."
So how do you and I get there?
1. Reflect on the mercy you’ve been shown.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones doesn’t mince words when he says, "If I am not merciful there is only one explanation; I have never understood the grace and the mercy of God."
I just read this by Sally Lloyd-Jones (not Martyn’s wife!), and it meant a lot to me:
Did God abandon us? Did he just look down from heaven at the mess we made? No. He didn’t just look down. He came down. God himself came down. Not as a judge to punish us, but as a Rescuer to save us.
If you’re still not "feeling" God’s grace and mercy, slowly read and think about Ephesians 2:1–10:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (emphasis added).
2. Ask God to open your eyes to the needs around you. Make a list. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to write down a boatload of needs I’m aware of, including financial needs, relational needs, spiritual needs, and emotional needs. If you’re having troubles coming up with a list of others’ needs, here’s a good place to start:
How can an ordinary woman extend mercy to others? She begins by stepping into the shoes of another woman, feeling her pain, sensing her uncertainties, seeing her world crumble. Then and only then can she begin to live her life and think her thoughts and fight her battles. You don’t put yourself into the life of another in a brief moment but rather by living your life in her shadow and trying over a period of time to walk where she walks and feel what she feels. —Dorothy Patterson
Whose shoes does God want you to walk in for a while?
3. Show mercy to the hurting.
Mercy doesn’t run past prayer, but it also doesn’t stop at prayer. Mercy rolls up its sleeves and gets down to business. And the merciful receive more mercy from God:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7).
Dorothy Patterson explains it this way,
This beatitude carries a double blessing because both the giver and the receiver reap a reward. . . . God’s mercy is so sweet that He always notes and rewards the kindness and mercy we extend to others. You never lose with God. The reward is not only in this life but also in the life to come.
Have you ever shown someone mercy? Tell us about it. If not, are you sure you’ve received God’s mercy? Will you humble yourself and ask Him for it now? He is eager to give it to you.
Visions of cheesy pizza, crunchy Sour Cream ‘n Onion chips, and gooey chocolate brownies dance through your mind. All else fades except that repetitive thought: FOOD. RIGHT. NOW. FOOD. RIGHT. NOW. Rumblings crescendo from the lower regions of your belly and before you know it, you’re just desperate to satisfy that craving. You are officially hungry!
Jesus points to our hunger pangs to reveal the secret to our search for true satisfaction:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6).
Cheesy pizza, gooey brownies . . . yum. But . . . righteousness? That’s one rare food that’s not typically found in my fridge! What is righteousness?
Pastor John Piper describes it this way based on the context of Matthew 5:6:
The first four beatitudes describe the broken, grieving, quiet person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. And the next four beatitudes describe the merciful, pure peacemaker who gets persecuted for his righteousness. Doesn’t this structure, then, give us the definition of righteousness? If we were hungering for righteousness in verse 6 because we were empty, and then we get persecuted for righteousness in verse 10 because we’ve been filled, isn’t it proper to define righteousness as that with which we have been filled—namely, mercy, purity, and peacemaking?
Righteousness is showing mercy to other people; and righteousness is being pure in heart before God who alone can see the heart; and righteousness is the effort to make peace. Now there may be much more to it than that. But that seems to be the focus of these verses and this chapter.
So how do you know when you’re hungry and thirsty—really hungry and thirsty—for righteousness? Well, as we’ve talked about in the last few blog posts on being poor in heart, mourning over sin, and being meek, you can’t hunger and thirst after righteousness until:
1. You’re not impressed—not at all—with your "righteousness." A lady I met this weekend matter-of-factly described herself as "spiritual." From the context of our conversation, my guess is that she meant she attended church, prayed, and was hospitable and friendly.
Never mind that Isaiah 64:6 says, "all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" in God’s eyes.
What are you secretly (or not so secretly) most proud of spiritually? What makes you feel better than other people? Are these areas where you’re trusting in your own righteousness?
2. You trust solidly and solely in Jesus’ righteousness on your behalf. You’re not impressed with your own spiritual résumé, so you turn to Jesus to receive the free gift of His righteousness. When you do, He instantly gives it to you:
To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).
At that moment, God justifies you. He sees you just as if you’d never sinned, just as if you’d always obeyed. The barrier of sin and guilt between you and God is bulldozed to nothing. You are given Jesus’ full and complete righteousness!
So does that mean you never hunger after righteousness again? No! God’s Holy Spirit keeps stirring up hunger pangs in you so you desire to keep growing into who you already are.
3. You want to run from everything that is not righteous. This week I watched a coworker jerk away when they realized they were sitting next to someone who was sick. Do you run from or revel in things that aren’t righteous? Do you even avoid things that might spoil your spiritual appetite? As you do, you realize that you need spiritual food. So . . .
4. You soak up time with those who are righteous. I just talked to a woman who doesn’t go to church because "I don’t have to go in order to believe in Jesus." While that’s true, it seems a bit like saying, "I love hockey, but that doesn’t mean I have to go to hockey games." If you’re hungry for righteousness, you want to be with other hungry people. You want to spend time reading your Bible and talking to God. But you don’t stop there.
5. You move out into the world as a representative of God’s righteousness. (More on this in the next four weeks!) For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Pastor John Piper: "Deep and lasting satisfaction for our souls comes not from the delights of the world nor from a merely religious or vertical relationship with God. Satisfaction comes from God to those whose passion in life is to know him in the struggle to be like him in the world."
So what if you’re just not hungry for righteousness? Find where you are in this list and honestly confess your lack of desperation for God’s righteousness to Him. Then put your faith and trust in Jesus’ righteousness alone. Ask Him to give you starvation for His righteousness.
When you do, you will find not only true happiness ("Blessed are those who . . .") but satisfaction ("for they shall be satisfied"). You’ll be completely full and content like you feel after stuffing your face with pizza, chips, and brownies—without the bloating, of course!
So how about it? Are you officially, desperately hungry for His righteousness?
A few months ago, my creative boss asked me and a few other employees to spend twenty minutes or less writing a poem about why we do what we do.
What working girl has time to write poetry when her inbox is spilling over with emails and deadlines? Besides, my last attempt at poetry wasn’t pretty (although it was memorable!):
A man was in a mine
He tripped on a vine
He really quick got up
And tried to find his cup . . .
But my boss said it didn’t have to be perfect, so I just wrote from my heart.
And when I finished, I was surprised and grateful for the exercise. Because most days the deadening dailyness of details clouds my vision and I forget.
But yes, that’s right! This is why I do what I do:
Most days I drag myself out of bed
grab an apple on the run
lower my shoulder to the Mac
and grit my way through email
and space dot space dot space dot ellipsis
their faces gray and unformed and far away.
But on occasional days
I see them
Ann locked up in bitter prisons of the heart
Jenny searching desperately for soul rest
Aisha wrapped in hijab, eyes blinded, serving a dead god
their faces soft and flushed and hungry.
And I wonder at this high calling
serving the WORD with each word
that, if Spirit-drenched, can point to Him
whose face is bloodied and tear streaked and warm
carrying all their sins and griefs and sorrows
if only they will let Him.
April is National Poetry Month, and I’m issuing my boss’s challenge to you. (No groaning, now!)
Why do you do what you do? I know you don’t feel like you have twenty minutes to write a poem, but even two is just fine. You’ll be glad you did! Because whether you’re a Classical Conversations homeschooling mother or an architect creating a design concept on the thirtieth floor, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).
Before I hit I-94 that morning, I read about how on the cross Jesus didn’t think of Himself in order to free me from myself. I asked Him to help me live free of self that day, and then—in the smallest of tests in the Art Institute of Chicago—I failed.
It happened under Mark Chagall’s America Windows—after a lunch of hummus and tabouli in the Garden Café. With leftovers in hand, I asked a security guard the way to the Picasso and Chicago exhibit.
He ignored my question and fiercely told me I was not allowed to have food in the Art Institute. "Oh, I didn’t know," I said and repeated my question about the location of the Picasso Exhibit.
"I won’t tell you until you throw your food away," he growled.
Muttering to myself, I dumped my food in the nearest trashcan and got the directions I needed.
I knew I shouldn’t mention it to my mom and sisters—after all, I’d asked Jesus to help me live free of self—but I couldn’t resist. The security guard had treated me with less respect than I felt I deserved, and my self wanted to flare up and kick back.
In that moment, I lost sight of the fact that Jesus was willing to be treated in a way Hetotally didn’t deserve . . . in order to take God’s wrath that I did deserve because of my sin . . . so I might receive what Jesus deserved—God’s love, favor, and righteousness.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Isn’t it perfectly natural for someone to resist being treated disrespectfully? Sure, but Jesus didn’t give me His Spirit so I could continue acting "naturally." One of the marks of Jesus’ Spirit is meekness. It’s also the third beatitude:
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
What does it mean to be meek? Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains it this way:
The man who is meek is not even sensitive about himself.
We think those who exert their power and defend their rights will rule the world. Jesus says just the opposite. Those who are meek (gentle) like He is will rule the world with Him in the end.
It’s what we see the night Jesus was arrested. He knew what was coming, pleaded for a way out, but surrendered to His Father’s will: "nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). It’s how we see Jesus responding to the insults flying at Him from all sides while He hung on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
But we’re not Jesus. And meekness isn’t just tough . . . it’s impossible! Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains why we fight meekness:
I am aware, when I am honest with myself, of the sin and the evil that are within me, and that drag me down. And I am ready to face both of these things. But how much more difficult it is to allow other people to say things like that about me! I instinctively resent it. We all of us prefer to condemn ourselves than to allow somebody else to condemn us.
Meekness only becomes possible when we have Jesus’ Spirit living inside of us. I will try to remember that the next time I find myself being talked to in a tone I find offensive.
How about you? Do you know this meek Jesus? Are you allowing Him to exhibit His gentleness through your life when you feel wronged, belittled, or underappreciated?