(If you’re looking for my book by this title, go here.)
Therefore be merciful,
just as your Father also is merciful.
When my firstborn was just a baby, Luke 6:36 caught my attention. I could see it was a direct command, and I wanted to obey it, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to put it into practice.
Showing mercy isn’t how we think of Christian parenting. We don’t use the word mercy often, and when we do, we define it narrowly: “not punishing my children when they deserve it.”
Every time I tried showing mercy, I felt guilty, as though I were subverting the instruction of my children.
God’s mercy is a Father’s mercy.
When Jesus tells us to be merciful, like God our Father is merciful, he’s giving us a topical assignment: we must discover how God is merciful, and then imitate that mercy with others. Jesus gave an important starting point when he told me to imitate my Father’s mercy. I was excited to think about Jesus using the parent/ child relationship to show an example of God’s mercy, and I decided to start looking to see if I could find ways that I could imitate God’s mercy as a mother to my children.
That plan started a search for mercy in my Bible reading that continues today.
What I didn’t know back then was that our understanding of biblical mercy actually comes from several words translated in English as pity, compassion, steadfast love, loyal love, and the word mercy itself. Love is merciful when there is inequality between the giver and receiver. God shows steadfast love to us. That’s merciful. We love God in response, but it can’t be called mercy. Mercy in the Bible is a subset of God’s goodness and kindness we are told to imitate.
I learned that, far from subverting our discipline, mercy is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian parent . I have a lot to learn about God’s mercy, and I often fall short when I try it out on others. Sometimes I show mercy when I shouldn’t, and sometimes I am too harsh when I should be merciful. Thankfully, I have a Heavenly Father who showers me with daily mercy. He reminds me that I will be better able to show mercy to my children as I learn first hand about his mercy to me.
God’s mercy is expressed in expected and unexpected ways when we sin.
Maybe you’ve heard the statement that “Grace is when God gives us something we don’t deserve [something good], and mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we deserve [something bad].” While this manmade aphorism can be somewhat helpful, it can also stifle our understanding of the broad reach of grace and mercy we see in the Bible. For example, in Scripture, mercy is not exclusively God’s withholding painful consequences when I have sinned.
God’s mercy is patient.
Sometimes God’s mercy is a dramatic display of his patience! Paul told Timothy, “I received mercy for this reason, that… Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16a).
God’s patience with me gives me time to repent. Several times I’ve become aware of a sinful habit, and I am reminded that I can’t see everything I need to change in my life all at once. Did God not care about those sins when I didn’t know about them? It is comforting to consider that God’s patience and timing is always perfect (1 Corinthians 10:13, Psalm 130:3-4), even when it comes to dealing with my sin.
Likewise, I have discovered, particularly with young children, that it is wise to observe behavior before immediately responding in correction. Sometimes the child needs further instruction, or time to mature, and sometimes he may change his behavior on his own. In these cases, by waiting, the parent may discover what to do next. I remember wondering if my 18 month old understood my instruction about throwing Cheerios. I didn’t really know until I had watched him for a bit.
God also gives clarity when the child’s sin increases in response to patience. A greater understanding of a child’s motives and what exactly we hope to accomplish by correction, helps us know better what to do next.
God’s merciful patience also gives us time to repent after we have been corrected (See Jonah 4:2 and Acts 17:30). I can imitate that patience, too. I sometimes expect my children to wipe away the bad attitude and instantly put on the new, with me watching carefully to see if it’s genuine; however, my children often respond far better when I try to help them understand what God expects, and then challenge them to spend some quiet time with God talking to him about the problem. I’ve noticed when I give them space and privacy, they often surprise me with a righteous response when we talk about it later.
God’s mercy is gentle.
I am also more likely to be merciful when I consider how I sometimes struggle with the same root sins as my children (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8). In many cases, showing mercy means talking about the things God is teaching me. I tell my children that I also find it hard to obey when I don’t understand or like what God has said. I, too, have had to trust God when I obey him. Sometimes, as I try to figure out how to be merciful to my children, I discover something that I need to change in my own life (Luke 6:41). I come to realize that the catchy Christian slogans I’ve been telling them are simplistic and not working, and I’m driven to understand why, so that I can help us both.
God’s mercy lightens consequences when we sin in ignorance.
Sometimes God’s mercy results in consequences far less severe than our sin might deserve. Ignorance of the rules seems to be one reason for this kind of mercy (1 Timothy 1:13). Paul’s explanation reminds us that it is appropriate to show mercy to children who “should know better” but don’t, especially if there has not been clear instruction in the first place. When my son burnt a hole in one of my tablecloths while soldering, I responded by asking him to please remove the tablecloth, and use a mat in the future. If he burns another hole in a tablecloth, I’ll probably be asking him to replace it.
God’s mercy lightens consequences when we come to the light in repentance.
God shows mercy when we demonstrate a measure of repentance (Proverbs 28:13). This passage has been one that has been especially helpful for me, because it seems like a straightforward example of God’s mercy that I can imitate. When my children are quick to own up to their sin, I want to imitate God, who gives grace to the humble. Telling the truth about sin is particularly difficult, for children as well as adults, and I want to encourage it as much as possible.
Shortening consequences is hard to do. We’re often afraid not to give consequences to our children because we are afraid of being “inconsistent” or not taking sin seriously. We may have even joined in criticism of “wimpy” mothers who avoid painful discipline. Truthfully, I don’t always know when it is merciful to mitigate discipline. I know that sometimes it is merciful to say only, “go and do not sin any more,” but at other times, that response is not helpful.
Merciful consequences and merciful shortening of consequences should have the same purpose! If shortening consequences results in the peaceable fruit of righteousness, then it’s likely we made a wise decision (See Hebrews 12:5-11). On the other hand, mercy does not mean God does not use painful discipline. In fact, if we mitigate consequences too often, we may find that we frustrate our children who never know what to expect from us. Or they never learn that sin always has negative consequences, even when we don’t see them right away. (See also Isaiah 55:7 and 2 Chronicles 30:9.)
God’s mercy is not always associated with discipline.
We can err by thinking that God cares little about whether we sin or not (ignoring it all), but we can also err by imagining that God responds harshly every time we miss the mark (correcting it all). Consider Moses and his grumbling to God in Numbers 11:10-17. In response to his grumbling, God gave him instruction, not correction and painful discipline. He told him to delegate his responsibility so it wasn’t as overwhelming. In this case, God appears to ignore the grumbling to meet the immediate physical need.
Just like with Moses, God’s lavish kindness is way out of proportion to my feeble awareness of it (Luke 6:35-36).
This kindness to me is the reason I can and must show kindness to the unthankful people in my own life. I’ve been surprised how difficult it is to respond kindly when my children have an entitled or demanding attitude. Not only am I tempted to be irritated and sarcastic, I feel a deep need to correct them every time I notice them not appreciating all I do for them! But if I were to correct my children every time they were selfish or unthankful, I’d be talking non-stop and crush their spirits. While I may not give them what they want, I need to be polite if I want to show mercy. I don’t always know how to respond to my children’s lack of thankfulness, but I suspect I need to overlook more and correct less.
Showing merciful kindness to undeserving people also includes praying for them.
I have found that when I pray for my children, and see their weaknesses from an eternal perspective, I am more patient and merciful with them as I teach them what is right. Since Jesus connects our mercy with how we should treat our enemies, it makes sense that part of showing mercy to undeserving people is praying for them (Matthew 5:44 does sometimes describe a child’s attitude at a single moment!)
Showing mercy to someone can also include meeting physical needs.
In a different passage, the story of the Good Samaritan highlights what it might look like for one person to show mercy to another. This man with physical resources met the physical needs of one who was helpless. A baby isn’t sinning when she cries out of boredom to be held, but she is expressing a helplessness that we can meet. Holding her and cuddling with her can absolutely be merciful. Our children are often afraid of silly things, and often unreasonably emotional. When we meet their needs practically with a nightlight, or a hug and kind words, we are imitating our Heavenly Father’s kind of mercy (Luke 10:36-37).
Children benefit from understanding mercy.
I’ve also discovered that teaching my children to be merciful has made it easier to teach them how to love their siblings when it’s not easy to do so. Because siblings sometimes act like enemies, correctly identifying the appropriate kind response as merciful seems to help them recognize that this kind of mercy is by nature unequal. Because children have a strong sense of justice when it comes to kindness, asking them to show mercy reminds them that parents (and God) are not justifying the ill treatment.
Wisdom in Showing Mercy is Learned Gradually.
Studying mercy has taught me that showing it to my children requires day-by-day wisdom. I don’t know when to show mercy if I don’t understand God’s mercy. I can’t show mercy well unless I know my children well. We will inevitably make mistakes, by showing too little or too much mercy, because understanding God’s mercy and knowing my children take discernment! Thankfully, the Bible clearly teaches that God gives grace to the humble, and that learning discernment takes practice (Hebrews 5:14). Our efforts to imitate God’s mercy are pleasing to God, even when we don’t get it right the first time!
Tomorrow I’ll tell you some of the practical examples I’ve found as I try to apply these Scriptures and principles throughout the week.