We are living is an incredibly self-centered, self-oriented culture. Perhaps we are not that different from past cultures, but there does seem to be a discernible drift in our culture toward narcissism, an obsession with one’s self, even at the expense of others. For example, child psychiatrist Dr George Drinka has written that “kids now live in a broader culture buttressed by a media culture in which the opposite of compassion and empathy . . . are shoved off stage. The norm has inched toward youths seeing the vulnerable child not as the one to be protected, nurtured and encouraged, but rather as a weak link to be made fun of, treated as a laughing-stock, in need of public humiliation, even on Facebook.”
What that means is that mercy as a virtue is facing extinction in our culture. Mercy is outward oriented, and is incompatible with the self-centeredness that is so wrapped up in the warp and woof of our society.
But on the other hand, this shouldn’t surprise us. For though mercy is not trashed as often or as virulently as is meekness, yet it is not hard to see that it is not popular either, and never really has been. It’s not really a part of the values of this age. As John Stott has put it, “the world (at least when it is true to its own nature) is unmerciful, as indeed the church in its worldliness has often been. The world prefers to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of men. It finds revenge delicious, and forgiveness, by comparison, tame.” Yes, I think that we can all identify with this desire to isolate ourselves from the pains and miseries of others. Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are curious enough to stop and look at a dying man on the side of the road, but we pass on and leave him untended. Someone else will take care of him, we reason to ourselves. Let the good doctors go over to West Africa and tend to those infected with Ebola, but don’t let them come back over here for treatment! We’re okay with other people showing mercy as long as we aren’t the ones who have to do it, or even as long as we’re not personally inconvenienced by others showing mercy.
Thus, when Jesus pronounces a blessing upon the merciful, we must not think that this is any less counter-cultural than anything else he has said or will say in the Sermon on the Mount. But neither must we think that this is any the less a part of the character of those who belong to the kingdom of God. All the people of God will display all the characteristics of all the Beatitudes. It is true that none of them will do it perfectly. But if the Beatitudes are a description of character, of fundamental attitudes, then someone who is conspicuously lacking these virtues has a lot of self-examination to do.
In other words, what our Lord is saying here is not that a Christian is someone who merely wants to be poor in spirit, or who admires mercy from afar. No, a Christian is someone who is poor in spirit, who is merciful. We might call this a sort of spiritual irreducible complexity. There are machines that, if you take one part away, they lose their function; in the same way, if a person is lacking even one of these Beatitudes, they lose their right to call themselves a follower of Jesus Christ.
Of course, it’s not like you can have two of the Beatitudes and none of the others. Or all but one. And the reason this is impossible is that these characteristics are not the result of self-improvement: they are the result of the grace of God in the heart of an individual. God does not make a person poor in spirit without producing grief over sin, or without making them also meek and spiritually hungry and thirsty and merciful and so on. It’s a package deal.
Also, as we’ve been saying, there is a natural progression in the Beatitudes, a logical sequence. One inevitably leads to the next. Last time, we talked about spiritual hunger and thirst. This results from seeing our emptiness – our poverty of spirit – so we cry out to God to fill our emptiness. And Jesus says that this person will be filled. But someone who has been filled by God, who has freely received, is also going to want to freely give. Someone who is the recipient of the mercy of God filling their own emptiness and misery is going to want to do the same for others. And so it’s no surprise, therefore, that our Lord now tells us that mercy is a fundamental characteristic of those who follow him.
What then does it mean to be merciful? Some might say that mercy is a synonym for grace, and although they are related concepts, there is a difference. Paul, in his letters to the Timothy and Titus admits as much when he wishes “grace, mercy, and peace” upon them (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4). The fact that he prays for them to be the recipients of both grace and mercy shows that there is a distinction between them.
I think Richard Lenski best draws out the distinction between the two: “The noun eleos (mercy) . . . always deals with what we see of pain, misery and distress, these results of sin; and charis (grace) always deals with the sin and guilt itself. The one extends relief, the other pardon; the one cures, heals, helps, the other cleanses and reinstates.” In other words, mercy consists in a heart of compassion and pity upon those who are suffering and a desire to relieve their suffering. A merciful person is not just concerned with own problems and condition; they genuinely care about others, and when they see others hurting, they want to do what they can to relieve their suffering.
But of course, it doesn’t just stop there, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us. The Good Samaritan didn’t just feel mercy, he showed mercy (Luke 10:37). The compassion in the heart reveals itself in definite actions. The apostle John put it this way: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:16-18). A person who claims to be merciful but who is unwilling to do anything for others in need is simply deceiving themselves.
How could this be demonstrated in our lives? Well, for one thing, we can extend mercy when people sin against us. Lloyd-Jones says that “to have a merciful spirit means the spirit that is displayed when you suddenly find yourself in the position of having in your power someone who has transgressed against you. Now the way to know whether you are merciful or not is to consider how you feel towards that person. Are you going to say, ‘Well now, I am going to exert my rights at this point; I am going to be legal. This person has transgressed against me; very well, here comes my opportunity’? That is the very antithesis of being merciful.” As if to underline this very point, in the next chapter in what is called the “Lord’s Prayer,” we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12). In other words, our Lord does not want us to have any confidence that our prayers are being heard as long as we retain an unforgiving, vindictive spirit. Rather, we are to show mercy, we are to feel pity upon those who sin against us. We are to be like Jesus, who on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Or like Stephen, who, as he was being stoned, prayed essentially the same prayer as Jesus: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59).
Or there is the obvious application in the relief of the sufferings of those around us. We live in a fallen, sin-plagued world. People hurt each other, they hurt themselves, and they are hurt from things outside of them like natural disasters and from things inside of them like cancer. We are here to help relieve such suffering whenever we can. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” it is unthinkable that he is just referring to spiritual problems. Jesus healed the physically sick. He fed the physically hungry. He went about doing good, as the apostle Peter put it (Acts 10:38). We ought to as well. We ought to do good to our neighbor, which just means everyone God puts in our way. And in this sermon, he was not thinking about any particular group. It is not, blessed are they who show mercy to other Christians, or, blessed are they who show mercy to their family: it is “blessed are the merciful” in the most general sense.
Now it is true that those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith can show mercy, and we thank God for that. But in the Beatitudes Jesus is not describing people in general, but his disciples. In what sense then is this a specifically Christian virtue?
I would say this is a specifically Christian virtue in its origin, motivation, and example.
Consider the origin of a merciful spirit in a Christian. James tells us that “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, without hypocrisy” (Jam. 3:17). Here, the apostle puts mercy as part of the fruit of that wisdom that is “from above” – that is, which is from God. It is true that some people are more naturally sympathetic than others. But the Christian is a person who regardless of their natural disposition is merciful – in fact, full of mercy – because God through the Spirit of Christ has made them so.
This is because God is merciful, and in the new birth we partake of the divine nature – not in the sense that we participate in God’s uniqueness as God but that we participate in what theologians have called the “communicable attributes” (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). Paul tells us that God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4). Twice in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes from the prophet Hosea in which he reminds us that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9:13; 12:7). So if you have been a partaker of the divine nature, you are being made in to a merciful person. Over and over again we read that Christ had compassion on the multitudes, that he had mercy upon people; you are being conformed into his image, so you are inevitably going to mirror his mercy in your life. If you don’t, there is a serious question as to the believability of your profession of faith.
It is also specifically Christian in its motivation. Why should we show mercy to others? Should we not because Christ showed mercy to us? Right before Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy, he has laid before us our lamentable state by nature apart from grace. We were dead, rotten, stinking spiritual corpses. We were enslaved to this world and to its prince, the devil. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and in sins, hath raised us up together” (Eph. 2:4). Elsewhere, he writes that “we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his own mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7).
Nothing compares to the miserable state we are in apart from God. Sin doesn’t just make us miserable in this life – it ruins us forever. Christ has saved us from that by dying for us. He didn’t just relieve us of our misery, he endured misery himself for us – became poor so that we might be made rich. Those who feel the reality of this are going to want to show mercy to others.
This is the lesson of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt. 18:21-35). Here is the story of a cruel servant who is so in debt that his master orders him and his family to be sold into slavery to pay off the debt. But when the servant pleads with his master, he forgives the debt. But then this guy goes out and finds another servant who owes him a few bucks and takes him by the neck and throws him into prison. When his master finds out about this, he takes back his offer of forgiveness and has the guy delivered to the jailors until the impossible debt is paid off. Jesus told this parable to a question Peter asked him: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” He then launches into the parable, when he ends by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” In other words, there is such an incongruity between someone being forgiven by God and refusing to extend that same mercy to another that no one should imagine themselves a forgiven person while they withhold the same mercy from someone else.
When someone has sinned against you, or even if they are just a person in need of kindness and compassion, how can we look at that person and not see ourselves in need of Christ? How can we say we believe the gospel and love Jesus and not act the gospel out in our lives and mimic our Lord’s character?
And thus we see that the great example of mercy for us is not some great saint, but Jesus Christ. What is so important here is that when Jesus, as the only sinless human being who ever lived, showed mercy, he always showed mercy upon the undeserving. In other words, though grace and mercy are different, they are inseparable in Scripture. We come to a throne of mercy that we might obtain grace (Heb. 4:16). Therefore, we when show mercy to others, it is not with some kind of spiritual Geiger counter to see if there is too much sinful radiation that might preclude our showing mercy. We are to show mercy even upon those who are undeserving because that’s exactly how God has dealt with us.
When we truly understand the right motivation and example of mercy, we are not only going to show mercy, but we are going to do it in the right way. Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, that those who show mercy are to do so with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:8). In other words, don’t do it because you have to, do it because you want to. There is nothing more abhorrent than a person who is obviously being forced to do the right thing. It’s also scary, because when a person doesn’t give mercy because they want to, they are like a spring that is pulled from its equilibrium state: it will eventually spring to the opposite side. Those who are forced to do good will inevitably end up doing evil.
Let us close by considering what is promised to the merciful: “they shall obtain mercy.” This evidently has often been misinterpreted and misunderstood as meaning that those who are merciful merit God’s mercy. That by doing good you get good as a matter of right and merit. But that is obviously not what our Lord meant by this. As we’ve already pointed out, mercy in Scripture is inseparable from grace, and grace is not getting what we deserve but what we do not. Obtaining mercy out of merit is impossible because it is a contradiction in terms. We need mercy not only because of our miserable state but because of the sin that put us in that miserable state. No human being other than Jesus has ever been in any position to bargain with God.
What then does our Lord mean? Well, it’s not hard to see. If it is true that those who truly belong to the Lord are those who are being conformed to the image of Christ, who are partakers of the divine nature, and that nature is one of mercy, then all those who shall obtain mercy in that great Day of days are precisely those who show mercy as Christ showed mercy. And it is then that we will need mercy the most and then when mercy from God will be infinitely and eternally meaningful. Do you and I need mercy now? Yes. But we will need mercy most of all when we stand before God’s throne to give account. It’s what Paul prayed for Onesimus, who showed mercy to him and at the risk of his own reputation sought Paul out. Paul wrote to Timothy, “The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day” (2 Tim. 1:18).
The only way any of us will find that mercy is in the Christ who makes us merciful.
 John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP: 1978), p 47.
 Quoted in Stott, p 47.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans: 1976), p 84.