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The Mercy PRAYER
The One Prayer Jesus Always Answers
By ROBERT GELINAS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Robert Gelinas
All rights reserved.
The Most Prayed Prayer
No judge wants to be labeled "soft on crime."
Judges are supposed to be fair, unbiased, and impartial, but in the end, tough. They are to make sure criminals and wrongdoers pay their debts to society. Judges aren't praised for giving minimal jail time to a drug dealer or probation to a habitual offender. In a land with three-strikes laws and voters who don't take kindly to plea bargains, being known as a judge who lets offenders off with a slap on the wrist is not a good thing. Judges are expected to lay down the law to lawbreakers; to be tough on crime. And when they aren't, they gain a bad reputation.
For example, many people were angry with Judge Reichbach in New York City for being too easy on criminals. When Dominick Bunch stood before him in court because he'd been caught selling an illegal firearm, prosecutors asked for a five-year prison sentence. Even though the defendant admitted to the crime, the judge reduced his sentence to a mere six months in jail plus six months of probation.
"It's an absolute outrage; he should be ashamed of himself," said the district attorney.
"This young man is deserving of a break," said the judge.
If you relent in your punishment of criminals, prosecutors will try to avoid your courtroom and request that you remove yourself from their cases. When it's election time, your adversaries will run ads against you stirring up the ire of voters. Someone might even start a petition to force your resignation.
A lenient judge invites outrage and indignation. That's what bothered my grandmother about God.
A Good God with a Bad Reputation
Before I was in kindergarten, Grandma made sure that I was in Sunday school. I am grateful for those formative years of learning the Scriptures and understanding the gospel because they ultimately resulted in my coming to faith.
Every Sunday I'd put on my suit with the dark-green pants and the light-green coat. It was adorned with all the pins that I earned from memorizing Bible verses and keeping perfect attendance. Then my grandmother would drive me to the church, park the car out front, and send me in to learn about God. She, on the other hand, would stay in the car.
At the end of class, even if it was cold and snowing, I would walk out to find the car parked in the same spot. I'd hop in, and we'd head for home.
In my teen years I asked her why she never went to church. This was the beginning of many conversations that always ended with her exclaiming, "You mean to tell me that a mafia hit man has just as good a chance to go to heaven as I do?" She couldn't get past the idea that someone worse than her could end up with her in paradise. It was an affront to her sense of justice.
Grandma was on to something: God is soft on crime. Murderers, adulterers, and habitual offenders have entered his court and walked away scot-free. Now if you are a prosecutor, this might seem like bad news. But if you are the criminal—a wrongdoer, a reprobate, a sinner—then it's a different story.
For us habitual offenders, God's infamously bad reputation is truly good news.
The Theme Is Mercy
Mercy is a—perhaps the—theme of my life. On November 6, 1969, I was born at Denver's Mercy Hospital. It's been torn down and replaced by high-end condos, but anyone who's from Denver knows where the old Mercy was located. My wife and I have six children. One of our daughters, who is from Ethiopia, is named Mihret. In Amharic her name means "Mercy of God."
Mercy is also perhaps the theme of Scripture. God's mercy is on display again and again in virtually every book of the Bible.
After leading the Israelites from Egypt, Moses turned to God in need of assurance. He doubted himself and his ability to lead Israel to the promised land. He cried out, wanting to know if God was pleased with him and if God would continue to lead him and the Israelites.
God responded to his servant in a most unique way: he put his name on display. In the Hebrew mind, to know someone's name was to know their character. "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you," said God, "and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence" (Ex. 33:19). God is the Lord. He has many names, but when we see "Lord" in all caps, a very specific name of God is being used: "I Am." That is the name God originally gave to Moses at the burning bush. It means, simply, God is. It's a statement of his eternal nature—that God always was and always will be. But it is more than that; it also means all that God is, always was, and always will be. That is, all God's attributes are also eternal, including his mercy.
Moses needed to know that the God who is, was with him. So God said he would pass in front of him and proclaim his name. Another way to think of this is that God was going to give a sermon about his name—the word proclaim is synonymous with preach. What text did God choose for his sermon? His mercy: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Ex. 33:19). To know God's name is to know God's mercy and that his mercy always was, is, and will be.
God's mercy is one of the central themes of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. I often hear people make the false dichotomy that in the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and in the New Testament he is a God of love. This simply isn't true. Mercy is not something that shows up only in the New Testament. For example, note that all these verses are found in the Old Testament:
For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you. (Deut. 4:31)
The Lord will turn from his fierce anger; he will show you mercy. (Deut. 13:17)
But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Neh. 9:31)
Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. (Ps. 25:6)
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. (Mic. 7:18)
James Montgomery Boice remarked, "Have you found the mercy of God in the Word of God? Until you have, you will never think of the Bible as being wonderful." Boice wrote those words in reference to the longest chapter in the Bible—Psalm 119.
In his writings about the Psalms, James Montgomery Boice told the story of George Wishart. He was the bishop of Edinburgh in the sixteenth century and found himself sentenced to death in those unhappy times. It was customary to allow the condemned to choose a psalm to be sung before his or her execution. As the story goes, Wishart, knowing that a pardon was on its way, chose Psalm 119 because of its extraordinary length—176 verses in all. It was a good bet; before the psalm was finished the pardon arrived, and Wishart was spared from the gallows.
Psalm 119 is the most intricate of all the psalms because it is an acrostic poem. Composed of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, virtually every verse refers to the virtues of God's Word: his laws and commandments. But one of the few verses that vary the subject, verse 132, is a request for the mercy of God: "Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name." Like Wishart, the psalmist is hoping for a pardon.
Mercy is the opposite of justice. Justice is what we deserve in any given situation. Mercy, on the other hand, is not receiving what we deserve, or receiving less than we have coming to us. God is just, but that is not what the psalmist is asking for in his situation. He desires mercy.
Notice his rationale: "as you always do to those who love your name." Essentially he says, "I see you pouring your mercy into the lives of everybody else around me. I would like some too." His request indicates that God has a reputation in the neighborhood. When you find yourself in God's courtroom, even though you stand before him guilty as charged, if you ask for mercy, then mercy you shall receive. So the psalmist says, "Give me some too." To quote the old hymn,
Pass me not, O gentle Savior, Hear my humble cry; While on others thou art calling, Do not pass me by.
Fortunately for the psalmist, God is indeed most merciful. He is known for being lavish with his clemency and compassion. In Scripture we see the mercy of God paraded in all its pageantry. David declares in Psalm 23, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" (v. 6 KJV).
God himself promises in Isaiah:
For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness [mercy] shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed, Says the Lord, who has mercy on you.
(Isa. 54:10 NKJV)
I have lived in Colorado all my life. Mountains have been ever-present for me. They are how I navigate. Growing up in Denver, you gain an intuitive sense of where the mountains are. Even when the skies are overcast and I can't see them, I instinctively sense their presence and know which way is west. In this passage from Isaiah, God invites us to imagine a day—impossible though it might seem—when the Front Range of the Rockies disappears. Pikes Peak and all the other majestic "four-teeners" are gone. Ingrained as they are in my mind, it's almost inconceivable to imagine them away. They seem so stable and fixed.
Yet God says that the mountains are fleeting compared to his mercy; and while snow-covered peaks will pass away, God will never remove his mercy from our lives. As a matter of fact, God has an abundance of mercy (he's rich in it!), and he shares it with us generously (Eph. 2:4–5).
There is a chilling scene in the movie Gladiator where the emperor Commodus has discovered a plot to overthrow his government. His sister, Lucilla, was a part of the ruse, along with the hero of the story, Maximus. The emperor has Maximus jailed and then confronts his sister. He makes it known that she is not receiving the penalty she deserves, though he warns that if she even looks at him in a manner that displeases him, her son will die. Furthermore, he demands her love and intimacy in return.
He then asks twice, once in a whisper and then again with an angry yell, "Am I not merciful?"
That is not God. God does not dispense mercy with reluctance. When he grants this gift, he doesn't do so with a vengeful scowl that makes us feel as though we owe him. The Scriptures say that God "delight[s] to show mercy" (Mic. 7:18). He smiles when he sees an opportunity to bestow leniency upon someone, and he gains pleasure in offering pardon to those who come to him in need.
Mercy by Design
I admit it. Morbid curiosity caused me to pick up the book How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. The title alone got me; I was curious about what would be in the pages of a book like this. After all, in our culture we have isolated death to hospitals and hospices, far from our normal lives. In his book, Dr. Nuland, a surgeon, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the end of life. It was more than a gratuitous, voyeuristic peek at death. I found it profound and thought provoking.
What happens when we die of a stroke? What is the process we go through when we pass away due to a heart attack? What happens when we die of AIDS or cancer? The chapter on traumatic death stood out in particular. What happens when death sneaks up on us? What happens when it's not a slow-working disease but rather a violent act, something sudden and unexpected, that takes a life?
Dr. Nuland recounts the horrifyingly sad story of a young girl name Katie who was murdered. No need to go into the details except to say that her mom was nearby and saw what happened, but there was no way she could do anything. By the time little Katie's mom reached her side, the daughter was already passing from this life to the next. The mom just held her nine-year-old child and began to speak to her as she did when Katie was an infant.
Katie died as her mom looked into her face. Later her mom wrote about her daughter's expression at that moment. It wasn't what one would expect. Her muscles were obviously forming an expression, but it wasn't one of somebody who'd just gone through a trauma. There wasn't a look of terror. No sign of shock. Rather, her mom says, Katie's countenance actually matched a portrait they had taken in their home. It was peaceful and calm. What caused that—the disconnect between the facial expression and the kind of death occurring?
Dr. Nuland says that's actually something many people have noticed; when somebody is dying a traumatic death, there seems to be a moment when the body experiences something different from the trauma that is taking place. Those who have been involved in wars have reported what's known as battlefield euphoria. You have wounds, bullets in your body. You're bleeding and seriously injured, yet you are still fighting to live. You don't feel the pain and are still lucid.
Some say it's an ancient response humans have, and that it can be traced back to when we coexisted with prehistoric predators. We had to be on our guard, and adrenaline (to help us run fast) and endorphins (natural painkillers) were developed to help us live in this fight-or-flight world of fear. Maybe that's the explanation.
My preference is what David Livingstone concluded from his own firsthand experience with trauma. Livingstone was a missionary to South Africa in the 1800s. One day, when out walking through the jungle, his party came across a wounded lion. Hurt but not incapacitated, the lion attacked Livingstone, latching on to his left shoulder. It picked him up off the ground and began to shake him as a dog shakes a toy, as a cat shakes a rat. Thankfully one of his traveling companions frightened the animal away by firing both barrels of a rifle. Livingstone survived.
Upon reflection, Livingston said that what he perceived didn't match the situation. During the attack, he was calm. It was almost like slow motion. He said there was even a moment when he turned and looked the lion in the eye and felt no fear as he bled profusely. Even though he had major lacerations in his body, through muscle and to the bone, he felt no pain. It was completely out of context.
It's almost as if something stepped in and changed the course of events. What he was supposed to be experiencing, he wasn't. What do you call that? I like what David Livingstone called it. He names it mercy. He said, "This ... is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death."
Believe it! Our God is so merciful that he even built mercy into our biology. Even when we don't have time to ask, in a moment of trauma, he comes to our aid.
In the Old Testament, the most used word for God's mercy is the Hebrew word hesed. However, God's hesed is so multifaceted that it takes more than one English word to describe it. That's why, in addition to being translated "mercy," it's also translated as a variety of other English words, depending on the context. You may also see it as "compassionate," "gracious," "slow to anger," "steadfast love," "unfailing love," "goodness," "generous love," and "loving-kindness." When the Scriptures speak of God as merciful, they're describing God taking action in our lives in what I've observed to be four different ways.
Mercy Is Compassion
Compassion is the kind of feeling a mother has for the child developing in her womb. Compassion is what causes her to smile when she feels her baby moving and kicking inside. It's a feminine kind of love. God feels for us in this way. As our Creator he knows what it means to conceive, nurture, and give birth. His mercy, when displayed in our lives, can be a gentle, womblike love of protection around our lives.
Mercy Is Grace
To say that God is gracious means that he has stooped down low and offered kindness to someone beneath him. Because God is the highest being in the universe, every form of interaction is for him a gracious act. When he receives the worship of the angels or listens to our prayers, he lowers himself; there is nothing equal to or higher than him. If in his mercy God did not come down to us, we could never know him. All knowledge we have about our Creator is a result of his gracious stooping to our level in word and in flesh.
Mercy Is Not Anger
Aren't you happy that God is slow to anger? Otherwise we would start looking for the lightning bolt as soon as we did something wrong. While we don't seek to displease God, neither do we fear that he's waiting to zap us when we fail. Scripture tells us that God is love. It also tells us that love is patient. We don't have to worry about immediate annihilation, because God is slow to anger.
Mercy Is God's Love
To say that God is merciful means that God "loves us as we are and not as we should be." In this life we will never be "as we should be." The day will come when we are perfected in God's presence, but God won't wait until then to love us—you might even say he can't. He must love us now! To wait to love us would mean waiting too long for God; instead, he chooses to love us as we are. It's the expression of his nature.
Excerpted from The Mercy PRAYER by ROBERT GELINAS. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Gelinas. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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