Talking to God doesn’t require a degree in theology. All you need are three little words.
by Robert Gelinas
“Lord, have mercy.”
It was the sentence uttered to Jesus more than any other. Some shouted it to Him from afar. Others cried out up close. Some whispered the request while kneeling in humble respect, hoping Jesus would come to them. Others frantically gave chase. Men and women; fathers and mothers; the outcast, desperate, and disabled all called out to the Savior—for both themselves and their loved ones—“Lord, have mercy.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Bible tells us that God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4-5) and delights in bestowing it (Mic. 7:18 NIV). In fact, mercy—which is available to all of us precisely because of the Lord’s character—is less about admitting who we are than about proclaiming who He is.
Author A. W. Tozer explains: “Were there no guilt in the world, no pain and no tears, God would yet be infinitely merciful; but His mercy might well remain hidden in His heart, unknown to the created universe. No voice would be raised to celebrate the mercy of which none felt the need. It is human misery and sin that call forth the divine mercy.”
And so in the midst of our pain and our tears, in the depths of those wounded and shameful places, we encounter the God of the universe. To come before His throne in vulnerable acknowledgment of our own brokenness is to know His character more deeply. It is because of our sin that we truly understand our need for a merciful Lord: as our eyes are opened to the depths of our dependence, we begin to recognize the truth of God’s infinite goodness. So when we say those three little words, “Lord, have mercy,” and receive what we’ve asked for, divine glory is made known—to both an individual heart and all of creation.
Mercy on display from cover to cover
I often hear the false dichotomy that the “Old Testament God” is only a God of wrath. This simply isn’t true. Mercy is not something reserved for the latter part of the Bible. The Old Testament shows us divine compassion time and again. Moses, for example, told the people, “The Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you” (Deut. 4:31 NIV).
The priests reminded them of His forgiveness when they sang, “In your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Neh. 9:31 NIV). And David, who made such requests more than anyone else in the Bible, said, “Remember, Lord, Your great mercy and love, for they are from of old” (Ps. 25:6 NIV).
In the first 39 books of the Bible, the most-used term for God’s mercy is the Hebrew hesed. However, God’s hesed is so multifaceted that it takes more than one English word to describe it. That’s why in addition to being translated “merciful,” it also gets rendered as “compassionate,” “gracious,” “slow to anger,” “goodness,” “steadfast love,” “unfailing love,” “generous love,” and “loving-kindness,” depending on the context. A close reading of the text helps us see that God is never far off. He’s always a simple prayer away.
Prayer takes practice
I’m convinced we always have time to pray the mercy prayer. And when we devote ourselves to building it into our lives, we will revitalize our relationship with God and revamp our prayers on behalf of others. Learning to develop this prayer habit will keep us “in view of God’s mercy,” where true transformation takes place (Rom. 12:1 NIV).
I practice the mercy prayer while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for a traffic light to turn green. But any time is appropriate to ask for and receive mercy. For example, you can approach God as you sit in a doctor’s office or prepare a family meal. When you find yourself complaining about what you lack instead of expressing gratitude for all you have, pray. When you’re angry, lost, or alone, plead for mercy with these three simple words. Make the request when your impatience gets the better of you or you realize envy lives in your heart. And at night before drifting off to sleep, pray for it with each beat of your heart, so that the first prayer on your mind when you wake is, “Lord have mercy on me . . . on us.”
I know it sounds excessive to pray for mercy so often. After all, no one wants to admit to being a “repeat offender,” but that’s exactly what we are. Unfortunately, it’s not a question of if we will return to sinful, prideful, and unloving ways, but when. And each time we do, we can run to God because He isn’t just the God of the second chance; He’s the God of another chance. We will never be forsaken; we will always be answered—that’s why we can be bold in our pursuit of mercy and pray with confidence (Heb. 13:5; Ps. 91:15).
But this prayer, like all other forms, takes practice. It also requires a shift in our thinking. We shouldn’t ask, “How much did I pray today?” but rather, “Did I ever stop praying today?” Focusing on “How long will this take?” misses the point of unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). Instead, steer away from thinking in terms of bare minimum, and pursue what is truly possible: unending, unbroken communion with the Lord.
Practiced prayer—that commitment to day in, day out communication with God—can become as second nature as breathing. And it will lead to a rich and renewed gratitude for mercy. Therefore, as followers of Christ, we can derive great hope from our guilt, our sin, our brokenness, our misery. In admitting the need for the Lord’s kindness, we are driven to practice the mercy prayer, which will renew and profoundly transform us.
Looking for answers
A request for mercy is the one prayer the Lord always answers, because it is in His nature to do so. Whether it was blind men by a roadside, lepers who had been cast away by society, or a Canaanite woman with a suffering daughter, Jesus never turned down a single request. There is even one instance where demons named Legion uttered their own version of the prayer, and, astonishingly enough, Jesus granted clemency by sending them into a herd of pigs rather than straight to the abyss (Luke 8:28-32).
If Jesus will say yes to an unclean spirit’s request for mercy, then what’s stopping us from asking? Let us all make our requests and recognize that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love (Ps. 103:8). As the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Ps. 4:16 NIV), because the truth is . . .
We all sin.
We all suffer.
We all suffer because of sin.
We all sin to alleviate our suffering.
Lord, have mercy!
Robert Gelinas is the author of The Mercy Prayer: The One Prayer Jesus Always Answers.