You gotta be kidding. Jack is dating Mindy? Oh, mercy me. She’s young enough to be his daughter!” Call that a casual use of the word that is our all-purpose exclamation for astonishment: mercy. It’s not a harmful deployment of a serious word, just a frivolous one.

If you’ve heard evangelical activist Tony Campolo preach, you know his sermons are anything but casual, his references to Scripture anything but frivolous. In a sermon preached shortly after the U.S. elected to invade Iraq, Campolo offered a passionate policy idea. As a suggestion for deposing Saddam Hussein, he proposed we airdrop thousands of tons of food and medicine on population centers across Iraq. It was an emphatic “bomb them with butter” strategy. Asked for justification behind this unusual “shock and awe” diplomacy, Campolo had a straightforward reply: “Mercy. Read Micah 6:8.” 

Opening our Bible to the prophet Micah, we immediately discover that we are to “love mercy” (New International Version). Not show mercy, but actually love mercy. In other words, savor it. Relish it. Hesed is the Hebrew word for mercy, perhaps translated as kindness in different places of your Bible.

But are we really ready to love mercy in our less than merciful culture? Revenge has an impressive reach in our society, just as it exercises a powerful grip on many a mind. Try having a conversation on mercy, for example, with a strident death penalty advocate. You may not get very far.

If we could realize how much we depend on mercy in a personal way, we might adjust some of our retributive instincts. Notice how often we demand a God of justice for others, but how much we need a God of mercy for ourselves. On the chance that I should die tonight, I’m pretty certain that I would hope to receive more mercy from God than justice. And you?

Mercy is the blessing we get when we don’t deserve it, particularly when we find our lives miserable or desperate with need. “[O Lord] in your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me” (Psalm 71:2). The psalmist’s plea offers a clue to the way mercy comes to life in Scripture. 

Of the nearly 150 biblical references to mercy, the vast majority of them understand mercy as a divine attribute. That is, mercy is much more than a human virtue we want for ourselves. “We live full time in the mercy of God,” says professor of homiletics and liturgics David Buttrick. “The air we breath, the grace we trust, the life we live — [it’s] all mercy.” We owe our lives to God’s mercy. 

Mercy is at the heart of God, the deepest quality of God’s compassion. “The Lord, the Lord, [is] a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness …” (Exodus 34:6). “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love … made us alive together with Christ …” (Ephesians 2:4-5). The priority of mercy in a list of God features — its first-place mention — catches our eye. Mercy is simply the way God is. And Jesus Christ, who becomes the face of God for the Christian community, is what preacher Will Willimon calls “mercy in motion.”

There is the story of a certified public accountant who decided to open a journal with God. He created a debit and credit book where he would list everything that God gave him and that he gave to God. If someone did him a favor, he noted that as God’s gift to him. Similarly, he credited God with his health, his friends, his food, his rescue from depression, and a thousand other undeserved blessings. 

He also put down what he did for God. In the end, though, he gave up the bookkeeping project, saying, “It’s impossible to balance the books. I find that God is completely my creditor and what I have done for God is next to nothing.” 

We attempt our own balancing of the books with God, only to fall back repeatedly on our need for mercy. So we keep on praying: “O God, who is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve, pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy.”

Yes, Lord. Pour it on. Please!

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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