“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (James 5:11b)
Anyone with even a limited understanding of biblical truth will agree that God is merciful and that God is compassionate.
There is a tendency, however, to see these two statements as basically meaning the same thing. James 5:11 and Romans 9:15 make it clear that they are different, although equally important, aspects of God’s loving character.
“Compassion” is best understood as sympathy and concern for another person in their affliction or misfortune, accompanied by a motivation to help. In a biblical context, it combines unconditional love for the person, awareness of the affliction, and a desire to help that is acted upon.
“Mercy” is best understood as forgiveness or leniency toward someone who is your enemy, or toward someone who has harmed you or others you care for. In a biblical context, it combines unconditional love for the person, awareness of the wrong inflicted, and forgiveness and leniency concerning that wrong.
In short, compassion is for someone who is hurting. Mercy is for someone who has hurt you.
Psalm 103:3 provides an excellent example of how this works. The Lord “forgives all your iniquity” as an expression of His loving mercy. The Lord “heals all your diseases” as an expression of His loving compassion.
Everyone needs God’s mercy. We have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory. (Romans 3:2) And everyone needs God’s compassion because in this broken world, we all face trouble we can’t solve on our own. (John 16:33)
How then do we best position ourselves to receive God’s compassion and mercy?
First, we need humble spirits and contrite hearts.
Isaiah 57:15 tells us that our high and holy God, who lives in a high and holy place, also lives on this earth with the lowly and contrite, to revive their hearts and spirits.
David embraces this truth in Psalm 51, written in the aftermath of his sins with Bathsheba. David is remorseful and repentant. (vs. 1-6) He calls upon God to do what he cannot do: create in him a clean heart and a right spirit, revived by the presence of the Holy Spirit, so he can live in the joy of his salvation and bring forth fruit for God’s Kingdom. (vs. 7-15)
Likewise, the Beatitudes preached by Jesus promise the blessings of the Kingdom to those who know they are poor and powerless in spirit, and the comfort of God to those who mourn their sins and the sins of the world, and the inheritance of the earth to the meek, and an inpouring of righteousness to those who deeply desire to become righteous. (Matthew 5:2-6)
Summarized, God’s compassion and mercy come for the humble, not the proud, and for the repentant sinner, not the self-righteous, and for the childlike, not the self-sufficient. (Luke 18:9-17)
Second, we must embrace the biblical principle that one reaps what one sows. (Galatians 6:7)
Jesus preached the merciful would receive mercy, and that if you don’t forgive others, God will not forgive you! (Matthew 5:7, 6:11-15) The parable of the merciful master and unmerciful servant should be a wake-up call to us all concerning the conditions of God’s mercy. (Matthew 18:32-35)
It is also clear this principle of reaping and sowing applies to compassion. Christians must cloth themselves in compassion. (Colossians 3:12) When Jesus described the separation of His sheep from the goats at the close of the age, the sheep were those who had acted in compassion for others. (Matthew 25:31-46) What they did for “the least of these”, they did for Him, and they were blessed for it. You don’t want to be a goat!
Although it is challenging, we must remember that our compassion and mercy are not just for the lovable and those who stir our sympathies. God calls on us to unconditionally love our enemies, and see their afflictions just as much as we see their wrongs. (Matthew 5:43-48) The Good Samaritan showed both compassion and mercy for the half-dead Jew because he loved and helped an enemy in his affliction. (Luke 10:29-37)
When faced with issues of compassion or mercy for a non-Christian, I try to recall that Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they won’t see the light of the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 4:4) The lost will always act lost. Our true battle is against the affliction of evil that blinds them, and it is good that overcomes evil. (Ephesians 6:10-12; Romans 12:21)
At the same time, godly compassion and mercy must be administered with wisdom. (James 3:13-18) True love is kind and patient, but it does not rejoice at wrongdoing. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) True compassion will sometimes involve restraint and true mercy will sometimes involve discipline. Regardless of what the “politically correct” think, we are not being compassionate or merciful when we enable or approve of continued destructive behavior.
My friends, if we want positive change in our nation, revival in our churches, or simply more of God in our own lives, compassion and mercy are Kingdom essentials. Let’s stop imitating politics and the media, and start imitating Christ. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
God bless you, and God bless our community.