“I just don’t feel called to sexual purity.”
“Reading the Bible isn’t my gifting.”
“It’s great that you pray, but I follow God in other ways.”
Faithful Christians and churches would rightly find these statements concerning. Yet it seems that demonstrating mercy to the needy is often talked about in similar ways. We affirm that it’s a virtuous thing to do but not a necessary fruit of following Christ. It can be considered an option that requires “calling” rather than a command that requires obedience.
But lifestyles of mercy have always been a marker of genuine faith. Job was commended by God for his righteousness—righteousness that was frequently demonstrated through deeds of mercy to the poor, widow, and fatherless. When Job’s friends erroneously judged that his suffering was the result of unrepentant sin, Job defended himself with these words:
If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the fatherless has not eaten of it (for from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow), if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or the needy without covering, if his body has not blessed me, and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, because I saw my help in the gate, then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket. (Job 31:16–22)
Deeds of mercy were so essential to Job’s faith that he considered physical mutilation a worthy punishment if he was found guilty of neglecting them. We might deem his statement melodramatic, but we would do well to take mercy just as seriously. Let our shoulder blades fall and our arms be broken if we withhold it!
The truth that we’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, can stir discomfort when we discuss the necessity of practicing mercy. We are hesitant to emphasize it, because we don’t want to be legalistic. We fear the slippery slope that plummets us into a ravine where righteousness is sought in works rather than in Christ. But sound doctrine is the very soil in which mercy thrives; cultivating deep Biblical convictions is what will guard us against counterfeit interpretations. It is a robust understanding of the Gospel that compels our good works!
When we are forgiven and clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we are adopted into God’s family. As beloved children, we are called to be imitators of our Father, and our Father has deep compassion for the suffering! This is why He instructed His people to not only execute justice, but to demonstrate mercy to the widows, the fatherless, and even those outside the house of Israel—the sojourners. This is a reason why He judged Sodom: though they had excess of food and prosperous ease, they did not aid the needy (Ezekial 16:49). This is why Scripture says that whoever consider the poor will be blessed (Psalm 41:1) and warns that whoever neglect the cry of the poor will have their our own cries unanswered (Proverbs 21:13).
Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily (Colossians 1), demonstrated God’s merciful compassion during His life on earth. Through miracles that healed the sick and fed the crowds, He displayed His divine glory, absolute authority, and tender heart. Jesus doesn’t just have power to heal, he has compassion on the hurting. He doesn’t just have power to multiply bread and fish, He has compassion on the hungry.
Jesus regularly reinforced the notion that mercy towards our neighbor attests that we are children of God. In a cautionary description of judgment, He reveals that concern for the poor is what separates those who think they’re saved from those who truly are (Matthew 25:34-46). Through a challenging parable about a Samaritan, he illustrates that sacrificial care for the needy reveals whether we are inheritors of eternal life (Luke 10:25-37).
“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?” (1 John 3:16-17). Merciful works do not earn us favor, but they reflect that we are children of the Father. When our mercy is directed towards those in the household of faith, our unity in Christ is displayed. When our mercy is directed towards unbelievers, our witness to the world is amplified. When we give to those who cannot repay, welcome those others reject, love those society deems unlovely, and serve those considered unworthy, we are imaging the Father to the world. Some will reject us for it, but others will see our good works and turn and glorify Him (Matthew 5:16).
Emulating God’s mercy springs from embracing His heart. God has never owed anyone anything; His care for the needy has always been motivated by loving compassion. Likewise, we did not adopt our daughter because we owed her anything. Members in my congregation are not welcoming foster children into their families because they owe them something. Christian landlords who generously underwrite housing for resettled refugees do not do it because they owe them. These deeds of mercy are a reaction to the mercy that has been given to us.
We have compassion on the suffering because God had compassion on us when we deserved eternal suffering. We provide for the destitute because God rescued us when our sins left us destitute. We feed the hungry because God satisfies us with Himself. We don’t show mercy to the impoverished because we’re saviors, but because the Savior showed mercy to us.