Last night at the dinner table, we were discussing our Fighter Verse for this week at church (Exodus 34.6-7). When God speaks about himself, the first thing he says is, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression…’. I asked the two older girls which of those things about God was their favourite.
One of our girls thought that ‘merciful’ might be her favourite, but she wasn’t sure what mercy was. So we tried helping her understand the difference between mercy and grace. DA Carson talks about the difference between mercy and grace in this way:
The two terms are frequently synonymous; but where there is a distinction between the two, it appears that grace is a loving response when love is undeserved, and mercy is a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of the one on whom the love is to be showered. Grace answers the undeserving; mercy answers the miserable. (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Confrontation with the World, 24-25)
Now, of course I didn’t cite Carson to my four year-old. But we did try to show her that grace and mercy are both expressions of God’s goodness to those (like us) who don’t deserve to know his goodness and couldn’t help ourselves. I think they got it.
So I asked them, ‘What are some ways that God has been merciful to us?’ I expected the usual Sunday School answers (‘Jesus!’) and not much more. What one of my daughters said, though, really gave me cause to pause and consider. She simply said ‘He spoke.’
I don’t know why, but for some reason, the notion of God’s mercy being expressed by the simple fact that he has spoken struck a nerve. If mercy is what answers the helpless and miserable, then God’s special revelation (his giving us the Bible) is mercy indeed!
Without the Bible we know that God is powerful and that we’ll be judged by him (Rom 1.18-20), but it is God’s word that gives us a knowledge of him that will save (2 Tim 3.15). Without a God who speaks, we couldn’t be saved. We wouldn’t know what to preach or what to believe if God hadn’t revealed it to us (Rom 10.14).
Without God speaking, we would know enough to be condemned, but not enough to be saved. That’s the definition of helpless — and it sets us up to receive his mercy, as we receive his communication at his initiative.
Of course, the ultimate display of God’s mercy is the giving of his Word, Jesus Christ, the divine communiqué par excellence. He came to show us that of all the ways God could speak, the grandest and fullest way is to send his Son (Heb 1.1-4). In his Son he has displayed his mercy finally and completely by speaking and revealing himself to those who could not know him otherwise. And in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners, we again see mercy.
And this all gloriously blows my mind because it’s like looking at your reflection in a mirror on another mirror — you know that effect where you can see 8 or 9 of you? God’s act of speaking is mercy, but the content of his speaking is mercy as well.
So how do we know God is merciful? My daughter couldn’t have said it better: ‘He spoke.’