Sometimes, Mercy is Sweeter Than Grace

I grew up in a pretty stereotypical Evangelical setting, which led to a pretty stereotypical back-and-forth between guilt and self-righteousness. That is, until I really heard the Gospel of radical Grace.

Many of us have this same story, where it has been so healing to hear that how God relates to us is not, in fact, based on our performance. Instead, everything necessary for God to be pleased with us has been accomplished on our behalf by his Son.

In response to this, we fall in love with God’s Grace. We pray for it, long for it, and cry for it. We read books about it, write about it, and talk about it. We try and speak it into others’ lives while trying to figure out why we don’t apply it to our own. We joyfully build our relationship with God on the glorious foundation of His Grace. It is fundamental, primary, and essential.

In short: we love Grace.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I fell in love with liturgy and ancient forms of worship, to notice the utter lack of “grace” from the prayers and worship of the earliest saints.

For example, I have used the Book of Common Prayer to guide my personal prayer and worship for several years now. In hundreds of pages of liturgy and prayers, there are only six references to grace–four from Bible verses quoted, and only two as part of the liturgy. “Grace” appears in none of the collects, prayers, or songs.

In fact, if you think about it, neither the Lord’s Prayer, the earliest Christian hymn we know of (Philippians 2:6-11), the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, nor the Athanasian Creed include any reference to grace.

So what do they focus on, if not grace? Here are some highlights from liturgies and prayers throughout Church History:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies…we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies…

The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Kyrie Eleison… (Greek for “Lord have mercy”. In some ancient liturgies, this phrase was repeated up to 40 times in one church service)

Mercy. Lots of and lots of Mercy.

Why is this so lopsided from the way we usually talk about spirituality nowadays? Have we stressed the wrong thing? Why are we so obsessed with grace?

For too long now, I’ve seen grace mainly as the “juice” God gave me to obey him; the strength God gave to grow; a gift of God that helps me please him better. Grace is like a little something “extra” God gives–the blessing that comes with right relationship. It’s his enabling of my relating to him. Mercy, though, has more to do with God’s relating to me in spite of something in me. Mercy always assumes there’s something being looked over or forgiven.

In a crude shorthand, you might say that Grace is giving you what you don’t deserve, while Mercy is not giving you what you do deserve.

In most seasons of life, I don’t like focusing on Mercy: what God has to overlook and overcome within me. I just want to get to the benefits and the way he might help me do and be better. I know God loves me, but at times I doubt he really likes me.

And yet, I’m coming out of a particularly dark season–a deep fog of sin, brokenness, and pain. The idea of “doing” things for God just feels so trite to focus on right now. I honestly don’t need grace nearly as much as I need to experience mercy.

Yes, I feel the gracious clarity and inner-spaciousness of mind and soul that comes with repentance, but damn if I don’t still long for a greater sense that God is merciful and loves me in spite of my sin, and not because of all the false selves I’ve heaped on to fool myself and others into thinking I’m doing better than I have been.

But there is still good news that the saints of old whisper to me. They remind me that before God is gracious, he is merciful. Until I get mercy, I will never truly get the grace that brings growth in love and Communion with God.

Mercy shows me that my response to my deep sin and shortcomings is not first and foremost to try and find more resources to overcome and conquer the darkness within me. Rather, it is first to pray and plead that God might be merciful and still look upon me with pleasure. And then it’s to praise him that, in his mercy, he has promised to do so.

And then I need to rest, trusting that grace might follow. So far, in this season of repentance and disorientation over how deep my sin goes, the grace has come. But I expect this mercy-to-grace cycle to be one I’ll come back to throughout my life with God and those I love.

Maybe this is why, in spite of all of our beautiful theology on grace, we’re bad at it. Without the backdrop of God needing to be merciful to us in the first place, his grace doesn’t truly captivate us.

So may we fall on our knees and cry for mercy. And in his mercy, may he give us grace. Please, Lord, I beg you.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

[image credit: “Jonah 1:3” by Mordechai Beck]


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One thought on “Sometimes, Mercy is Sweeter Than Grace

  1. Thank you – I was (google) searching to see if anyone had ever expressed my current thoughts on grace and mercy! As one who has grown up and lived half their life under an “evangelical platform”, it has been deeply ingrained that grace seemed “better” despite the number of biblical references to God’s mercy. Your statement – “Until I get mercy, I will never truly get the grace” is such an important under-emphasized truth! I’ve experienced the sweetness of God’s mercy and I will never be the same.


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