The teachings of Jesus are immersed in a handful of foundational principles. One of these principles is that the follower of Jesus is to be an expert at showing mercy from the heart. The source of this mercy is our abiding awareness of God’s mercy toward us and our continual, frequent and recurrent need for mercy.
Before, we jump into the discipline of mercy, let’s review Jesus’ way of discipleship. First, the first principle of all Christianity is that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus taught us that it is upon this rock, this first truth, that He will build His church. To believe that Jesus is the Christ is to have faith that the answer to the human predicament is solved by Jesus Christ. Jesus came to set the world right. Our faith is that by believing and following Jesus, we will experience a new quality of life. This quality of life is called the “Kingdom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God”. This kingdom is from the inside out. Jesus’ teachings center on heart management and life transformation. He teaches us to love our enemies from the heart. He teaches us to be humble and meek and merciful. By following Jesus, the King, we enter and experience His kingdom. This process of following Jesus and experiencing the kingdom is called discipleship. We experience the kingdom as we begin to pattern our lives through the teachings of Jesus. Therefore, we apply the teachings of Jesus in order to enter the quality of life called the kingdom.
Another key verse that helps us understand the kingdom as a new quality of life is Romans 14:17. Romans 14:17 says that "the kingdom of God is righteousness peace and joy through the holy spirit”. Paul is saying that the kingdom of God is a quality of life to be experienced as a result of the power of the Holy Spirit in our life. This quality of life is described as righteousness, peace and joy. Putting the call to discipleship together with Paul’s definition of the Kingdom and we conclude that through the process of discipleship we are promised to enter a quality of life characterized by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Another key principle of the discipleship process is the very first teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The first principle of Christianity is that Jesus is the Christ and the first principle of discipleship is that it is the “poor in spirit” that enter the kingdom. The teachings of Jesus all rest on this one teaching of Jesus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. All our following must follow this principle. The kingdom of heaven is only entered into by people who are spiritually bankrupt and are aware of their spiritual poverty. In other words, the way in and the way on in the kingdom is GRACE. We are spiritually without means, we are poor beggars. We lack power or ability to live the kingdom life. We need help. We need healing. We need power. We need grace. We need Jesus. The gospel is an arrow downward. The gospel of the kingdom is about God, by grace through faith, giving forgiveness and power to a sinful and powerless people. Any step we take forward in our quest for a life of righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy spirit is the result of God’s grace. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for it is those who reach up to God for help and healing. The poor in spirit receive the forgiveness and the ability by His spirit to live the life that can only be described as heavenly.
Therefore, as we seek to be merciful and to receive mercy, we remember a few key foundational principles. First, that we follow this path of discipleship because of the promise of the immediate availability of the kingdom of heaven. The goal is to enter, through following Jesus, a new quality of life, that is the kingdom. Secondly, every step in following Jesus is made by weak and needy people. Every step is informed and empowered and enabled by grace. This life is for the spiritually poor and needy. Upon this foundation, we begin to consider the discipline of mercy.
The Discipline of Mercy
The text we are looking at is Matt 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”. This text is asking us to take action. The action Jesus is directing us to take is to be mercy or to show mercy. But this is by no means the only text in the teachings of the Christ regarding mercy and the exhortation to be merciful. The following texts also give us the spiritual direction to show mercy.
- “Father forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. Paul also states, “Forgive one another even as God in Christ has forgiven you”.. These texts teach us that we are to forgive both because we have been forgiven and because we know that we need to be forgiven. In the same way that we are forgiven, we are to forgive, and, wonderfully, in the same way we desire to be forgiven, this is the manner in which we are to forgive. People stumble over the theological questions that these texts imply. Is Jesus saying that our forgiveness is contingent on our forgiving? Does our forgiving merit our forgiveness? This completely misses the actual point of the exhortation. Jesus' point is so wise and compelling. It is impossible to withhold forgiveness when you ask God to forgive your sins only to the extent that you forgive others. Try to withhold grace and mercy from your neighbor when in prayer you ask the Father to extend mercy to me in the same manner and measure that I extend mercy and grace to others.
- The other core text in the gospels that elaborates on mercy and forgiveness is in Matt 18. Starting in verse 17 the gospel says the following:
21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
The point again is so clear. The poor in spirit know the pile of debt that they are in spiritually and their absolute dependence on the mercy of God. Any person with this awareness will show the fruit of being merciful to his neighbor. For us to be merciful, we must be immersed and again I say immersed, in an awareness of our own continual dependence on the mercy of God. This awareness describes the first discipline of being merciful - receiving mercy.
The Same sin 50,000 times
As I reflect on my own life, I am made aware that my character defects lead to the repetition of the same sinful behaviors over and over again. I think of speaking harsh words. I imagine I have done this same sin maybe 10,000 times over the course of the last 25 years. Sure, I have moments of meekness but I nonetheless violate the law of love numerous times a day, yet God is patient. How many times do I need God to forgive me of this sin? How many times do I want God to forgive me of this sin? Such sins flow out of my character defects and the circumstances of life. I imagine that if the number of instances of a given sin is 50,000 then I need this many and more instances of mercy. This continual need makes me continually reliant on God’s infinite patience. If I make it a pattern of my spiritual life to receive this mercy and to reflect that this mercy is needed day after day, season after season, then my heart response is to become a fountain of praise and thanksgiving to God for His infinite mercy. This awareness of our need and our joyful acceptance of God’s provision in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness is the source of our mercy to others. Process of receiving mercy and becoming merciful is how the gospel transforms us. Therefore, we are to first immerse ourselves in receiving mercy. This process tenderizes our heart and makes us compassionate, patient and merciful.
Form this grace in which we stand, we begin to give to others the same measure we are expecting for ourselves. I cannot exist in any level of peace if God does not provide this continual grace for the same sins that I sin over and over. Hallelujah, He does. Therefore, I am to measure to others the very same measure that I myself am relying upon. In no instance, do I desire God to withhold from me His mercy. This decries the process by which we are to become merciful through the gospel.
The Discipline of Forgiving Others
We all have friends and family. We all have neighbors. We all have churches that we are in relationship with. All these relationships are with people. All these people are just like us. Some are less mature than other, yes, but essentially, we are all very similar. We all speak and act. We all experience circumstances that are out of our control that we respond to. Our responses are not often well prepared but are, instead, reflex responses to the stimulus of life. Therefore, we are all inflicting varying amounts of discomfort and pain upon one another on a daily basis. At some point in relationships, we just want to say, “I’m done. This guy is just too much of a jerk for me to put up with.” We lose relationships. This is the natural end of a relationship that is not immersed in mercy. When this happens, mercy has been withheld many, many times. The teachings of Jesus and the discipline of mercy takes the exact opposite course and results in long abiding relationships with real people in the real world of stress and character defects. What being merciful means in real life is forgiving people for every little thing as a regular discipline of life. Here is how I have learned to practice mercy in my daily relationships.
On about a weekly basis, I take out a sheet of paper and I ask the Lord to reveal to me every small slight that I have received and every resentment, even the smallest little tinge of judgment, that is in my heart. I list the peoples initials and write a word or five that describes what happened. I write these out as rows and every time just about every person I know is on the list. It might take two pages or it might take five pages. For example, I might write, “JH - she goes to bed too late” or “MB – he thinks I have ADD”. Some of the items are big and some of the items are small. I intersperse this with prayers of “Lord, bless this person and give them spiritual success”. Sometimes items remain on your list many times because the resentment and the memory remains. You can feel in your heart that you still can be disturbed by the person or the memory of the incident. Some people’s lives have really been disrupted by other people’s sins and charter defects. A mother is an alcoholic or a friend is an egomaniac or is damaged and insecure. These people hurt us or they disturb us regularly. Our desire is to find mercy for them and compassion for them in their brokenness just like we desire God to find mercy on us and be compassionate toward us as we struggle with our brokenness. In all things, compassion.
When the list is complete and I can find no more initials or instances, then I begin at the top of the list and forgive each person and pray for their spiritual success. I may find that I am overwhelmed by compassion for one person on my list. I may find that this wellspring of compassion overtakes my time of prayer. In such cases, I go with the spirit and pray for this one person. Then, the next day I come back and continue the list. The result is that my soul becomes filled with compassion and mercy. Always, I find that in the days following such an exercise, I am surprised by how happy and near to God I am. I have take action in light of the teachings of Jesus and, lo and behold, it works.