Religion With and Without Mercy

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Religion With and Without Mercy

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You would think religion would make people more merciful. But do we see this today?

The worst extreme we hear about is people who use their religion as an excuse for torturing, terrorizing and killing others. Then we hear of harsh and cruel punishments for infractions of religious rules. And it is common to hear of overly severe penalties exacted for people’s sins and mistakes, including attitudes of scorn and condemnation.

Furthermore, a tendency exists for treating all sins and mistakes alike—major and minor, impulsive and premeditated, those done in ignorance and those done with full knowledge. And cold-hearted “judges” often do not look at the attitude of the person’s heart and do not show mercy even when the person is sorry and repentant.

As well, judgmental people are often hypocritical, being guilty of the very things of which they are castigating others. In fact, some people seem to have a compulsion to correct sins in others that they themselves continue to commit. “The guilty dog barks,” goes the saying. Because they cannot or do not want to overcome the weakness in themselves, they psychologically project their weaknesses onto others, making themselves feel more righteous by condemning the failings in others.

Exalting mercy

But God’s true religion exalts mercy! Over and over throughout the Bible, we see mercy as one of God’s paramount teachings—a character trait He emphasizes as essential in His followers!

But it’s not just non-Christians who are unmerciful—no one is perfect in mercy, even the people sincerely seeking to live by the Bible. We must all examine ourselves, study God’s Word to better understand mercy and continually seek the transforming power of God to be merciful as He is merciful.

Our Creator is a God of justice as well as mercy. God’s laws are eternal and very much in effect, so God commands obedience.

But it is interesting to note that in the King James Version of the Bible, the word mercy occurs 261 times, while the word justice occurs only 28 times. The word judgment, which includes justice and mercy, occurs 285 times. (To motivate people to repent and obey Him, God uses the carrot and the stick—He promises abundant blessings for obedience and eventual punishment for disobedience when one does not repent.)

God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). “The Lord is very compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy” (Psalm 145:8). The Bible repeatedly says “His mercy endures forever.”

Examples of mercy

By far the greatest example of mercy is God the Father and Jesus Christ being willing for Jesus to be incarnated, suffer terribly and die so that we sinful humans could be forgiven and saved. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

God’s grace includes unmerited pardon for repentant sinners. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

Jesus set a perfect example of humility, mercy and love to the very end.

When Jesus Christ dwelt among men, He continually set a wonderful example of mercy. And this was quite a contrast to the prevailing religious attitudes of His day—attitudes of arrogance, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, condemnation and a cold-hearted lack of mercy.

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37 illustrated how the religiosity of His day did not equate with mercy and love. Both the priest and the Levite showed no compassion on the injured man but a Samaritan who was self-sacrificing aided the man. Judaism had degenerated to the point that it influenced its followers to be less merciful than the nonreligious people. It is still common to see examples of nonreligious people being more merciful than many religious people are.

Unintended effects of religion

Religion can have unintended effects. When people learn God’s commandments or other rules for living, their standards of character are appropriately raised. But they can easily start feeling superior and self-righteous and become more critical and unmerciful toward others. However, the followers of Jesus Christ must focus on how they are being saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by any merit of their own.

Jesus set a perfect example of humility, mercy and love to the very end. Even when He was dying on the cross, Jesus prayed for His executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Likewise, Stephen prayed for those stoning him, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).

Mercy encompasses several related things—forgiveness, kindness, compassion, gentleness and relief or alleviation of suffering. Jesus exemplified all aspects of mercy.

In Jesus’ recommended outline of prayer, He said, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

The way Jesus dealt with a woman caught in adultery is a typical example (John 8:3-11). The story concludes with Jesus telling the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (verse 11). This is a great principle to understand in our daily lives when working with people. Showing mercy to someone makes it much easier to work with him or her, and he or she is much more likely to repent. Being merciful rather than critical usually gets better results. Someone once wrote: “Show a man you have faith in him, and he will do everything he can to show himself worthy.”

The Pharisees had the Scriptures, but knew little about mercy and practiced it less. In Luke 7:36-50 is the story of a Pharisee who asked Jesus to come to his house and have a meal. While Jesus was eating, a woman begins to wash His feet with her tears and to anoint them with fragrant oil. This was a woman with a reputation as a sinner—not someone most people then would allow to touch them.

What was Jesus’ surprising conclusion? He knew her heart and knew she was repentant and worshipful. She loved Christ and would love Him even more because of His mercy and forgiveness. But, the self-righteous Pharisee was in denial about having any sins and, therefore, was unrepentant and unloving.

God’s merciful character

To have the merciful character of God, Christ admonished us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Later He said, “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (verses 36-37).

Note that last very sobering statement. If we don’t forgive others, we will not be forgiven. In Jesus’ recommended outline of prayer, He said, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He elaborated on this in verses 14 and 15. God is eager to be merciful and forgiving, but He will only treat us this way if we are merciful and forgiving to others.

God forgives even the worst of sins when there is true repentance. Consider the story of Jonah. Jonah was angry with God because He spared the city of Nineveh. (Nineveh was considered an enemy of Israel.) Jonah complained, “I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2). This is a good lesson for all of us, because sometimes we tend to be like Jonah.

When we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, we should examine ourselves. Would my attitude be like that of the father (merciful) or like that of the elder brother (unmerciful)?

Concern for every person

The following account shows how deeply concerned God and Jesus Christ are for every single person:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’

“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:4-7).

There are many more excellent scriptures that speak of mercy. Daniel 9:18; Micah 6:8; Micah 7:18; and Zechariah 7:9 are some of them.

God forgives even the worst of sins when there is true repentance.

Being “religious” generally implies acts of worship and service toward God. This is pleasing to God if two things are true: 1) The actions are in harmony with God’s teachings in the Bible. And even more important, 2) there is love and obedience toward God and love and mercy toward our fellow human beings.

“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice and burnt offerings” are being religious. But there are things that God desires more than being religious.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (Colossians 3:12).