Is Mercy Optional?

Opening the gift, obeying the command

Somewhere along the way, mercy seems to have become optional for some of us. Have you ever heard words like these from a ministry colleague: “I have no mercy gift…”

This comment brings an important question to mind: Is mercy a gift, or is mercy a responsibility?

There is no doubt that mercy is a spiritual gift: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophecy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; ... if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:6-8).

However, long before mercy was identified as a spiritual gift, it was stated as a requirement: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Jesus drives home this responsibility in His Sermon on the Mount, making it clear that showing mercy to others is a precondition of receiving God’s mercy (Matthew 5:7).

If God’s Word is so clear that mercy is both a precious gift and a sacred responsibility, why is it falling out of favor? I believe that we are strongly influenced by the rugged individualism and growing assertiveness of our American culture. Furthermore, we’ve become so task-oriented and specialized that we see mercy either as the responsibility of other staff members, or as a “speed bump” on the superhighway of 21st-century ministry.

I am reminded of that great J.B. Phillips translation of Romans 12:2: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own [mold], but let God [re-mold] your minds from within. . . .”

If we are to be conformed to the image of Christ and invite others to seek maturity in Him, then we must embrace the totality of who He is. Mercy is one of Jesus’ most defining characteristics. No one had a more important task, but Jesus took time to speak to outcasts and heal untouchables. Take away His mercy and He becomes unrecognizable. And if we lose our mercy, we become unrecognizable as His followers.

How can mercy be optional for those who serve “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort?” (2 Corinthians 1:3, English Standard Version).

Not only is mercy not optional, but it also has its own rich reward. Consider the story of one of the masters of mercy, Joseph (Genesis 45).

When it came time to reveal his identity to the brothers who had sold him into slavery, Joseph did not ignore their guilt. Yet, as human justice screamed for a balancing of the scales, he made a different choice. Rather than seeing himself as an innocent cast into slavery, Joseph saw himself as one who was sent ahead in order to preserve life.

Joseph found joy in saving the lives of his brothers and their children and grandchildren and giving them abundance in a season of great famine. He was able to look beyond their evil intent and see that “God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

In order to embrace mercy, we need to see offenses and offenders from God’s perspective.

Also, think about the gifts that Joseph gave to himself in extending mercy to his brothers. For years he had lived apart from his family, in a culture where extended family and tribe were so important. Through his mercy, Joseph was reunited with his father, Jacob—now a much wiser and more godly man. Joseph was blessed to see his children on Jacob’s knees and playing with their many cousins. He watched his family of 70 people multiply and prosper.

In letting go of revenge and extending mercy, Joseph multiplied joy for many and set the stage for Israel becoming a nation of more than a million souls.

In order to embrace mercy, we need to see mercy as a gift we give to ourselves as well as to others.

In this fallen world, each of us has pulled one or two knives from our backs. Betrayals of trust are especially difficult in the context of ministry, where the wounds are almost always from a friend. But just as the pleasures of sin last for a season, so do the pleasures of revenge. It is true that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

However, we can choose a different entrée. Mercy is a dish best served warm, and when we serve up mercy to another, we get to share in the meal.

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