The Spiritual Practice of Being Merciful


“Blessed are the merciful 

for they will be shown mercy.”

Jesus in Matthew 5:7, NIV

Blessed are those who are patient when others make mistakes, who are quick to forgive and don’t always demand restitution, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are you when you treat others the way God treats you—when your experience of God’s mercy is so real that it naturally extends itself to others. Blessed are you when God’s merciful character defines you and is imaged in you because God is near in that place.

“The test of one’s relation with God is one’s relation with other people.” 

 Frederick Dale Bruner, p169, The Christbook


Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s view of good and evil is deeply unsettling to those who are unmerciful:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” The Gulag Archipelago 

It takes great humility to own the dark recesses of your soul because once you name the problem you need to do something about it. For a person of faith, God’s mercy is our only hope. We can never save ourselves from our chronic heart condition; only God can and, of course, God wants to—because God loves us. Mercy is the natural outflow of a love that seeks to restore our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. 

To the extent that we’ve experienced God’s mercy, we can extend it to others.

So, what’s keeping you from a life-changing experience of God’s mercy?

Has salvation become something that happened years ago and is now long forgotten? 

If it has, refresh your memory and write the story down. 

Describe who you were before things changed. Take note of how you felt when you came to realize that God’s love was real. How did this knowledge change the way you treated others? What kind of person were you in those early awake-to-your-faith days?

What’s hardened you since then?  

Is it apathy? Have you taken God’s love and mercy for granted? If so, you might want to talk to God about that and come clean.

Or maybe it’s pain. Because you’ve been mercilessly hurt by others your capacity for extending mercy has been diminished. You’ve been pushed into a more defensive place—one that is emotionally further away from others, with less psychological space to hold and process the brokenness of others. If this is your story, try to name one of the ways your pain keeps you from be merciful toward others. Write it down. Take what you’ve written and hold it in front of your eyes. Just like that piece of paper or digital screen is blocking your view, your unresolved pain limiting your ability to see mercifully. 

Or maybe it’s your inability to leave the pain behind. Forgiveness is hard, in part, because we think it lets others off the hook (Which it doesn’t! It actually lets you off the hook and allows you to lay others down—put the pain down—and be free). Forgiveness is also hard because we need to revisit our pain—to fully name it so that we can fully release it (and who wants to go there again?). But if you are able and willing; forgiveness is the way to be freed from pain and freed up for mercy. 

Personally experiencing God’s forgiveness can help. To the extent that we know how much and how often we’ve been forgiven, we can forgive much and often. 

Experiencing the freedom that mercy evokes can also be a motivating factor. To be a merciful God is to be in a perpetually forgiving and relationally freed place. Mercy by nature begets freedom.  

Imagine experiencing God in this relationally free place—knowing God’s “all is good”, “it’s now behind us”, “we’re in a good place” presence every time you extend mercy to another. Perhaps this exercise can help you get to that place:

  1. Write a sentence describing the last time you extended mercy to another person.
  2. Now write down how it made you feel. More precisely, how were you freed in freeing them via your merciful act? 
  3. Unpack what that freedom felt like. What space did create in you?
  4. Now imagine God standing in that space with you—feeling the freedom you’re feeling for the person you helped and feeling freedom in relationship to you.
  5. Write down what that feels like for you.


Jesus is the embodiment of mercy. What he so graciously extended to those he met face to face he also extends to you. Through Jesus, God extends mercy to you.

Following are three mercy moments from the gospels (along with invitations to enter into the story more deeply). 

  1. When Jesus came across an outsider or someone who was sick, searching, or lost, “He had compassion on them.” (Matthew 9:36, NIV). Compassion is one of the first ways we come alongside others. It’s where acts of mercy germinate. When we feel what others are feeling we understand their predicament and have a better sense of what we could do to help. In Matthew 9:36, Jesus felt compassion for a crowd of people because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Imagine standing in that crowd that day, carrying your feelings of harassment and helplessness (what are they?). Then imagine Jesus making eye contact with you, feeling this way for you. What’s it like to experience Jesus’ compassion?
  1. In the gospel of John, Jesus stood with a woman caught in adultery and said to her, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11, NIV) There was no question of her guilt, and the surrounding mob wanted justice, but Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Imagine standing in that crowd and hearing Jesus saying those words to you. What are you thinking as that awkward silence falls over the crowd? Now switch roles—imagine that you’re the woman and you’ve just heard Jesus say to you, “Neither do I condemn you”. What would Jesus not be condemning you for? How does it feel to hear him mercifully free you with these words? Jesus is speaking with God’s authority! Write down what you’re feeling.
  1. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he told a criminal who was dying beside him (a man who had just asked for some last-minute forgiveness) “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV) This criminal didn’t get his act together until the very end. It took the desperation of immanent death to bring him to a place where he reached out to God. He was naked and had nothing to offer—no future good behaviour, no making amends. And Jesus offers him paradise! Can you imagine being in this criminal’s place? In a very real sense you are. What does it feel like to hear God say these words to you? Repeat them to yourself over and over until your words become his.

Take each (or all) of the above and write out your responses. Then take what you’ve written and email it to yourself and leave it in your inbox for a month (as a reminder).  

A PRAYER FOR MERCY (excerpts from Psalm 31):

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning;
    my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak…

I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an 

   object of dread to my closest friends
 Those who see me on the street flee from me.
 I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery…

 But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands…
Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.
Let me not be put to shame, Lord, for I have cried out to you…

 How abundant are the good things that you have stored up 

 for those who fear you, that you bestow in the sight of all, 

 on those who take refuge in you.
In the shelter of your presence you hide them from all human intrigues;
you keep them safe in your dwelling from accusing tongues.

 Praise be to the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love
You heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help…

 The Lord preserves those who are true to him…
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

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