The Obstacles to Being Merciful
By Pastor Don Strand
The fifth beatitude; the blessing that comes from the Father to those who are in Christ, is for those who are merciful. We learned last week that Jesus defines the ‘merciful’ as those who develop a quality of helpful compassion, a quality of sympathetic interest and activity for those who are suffering because of sin. The one who develops this quality of heart will be blessed. Mercy is not the inclination of the natural heart. Instead, as the old beer commercial used to say, “you only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” Left to ourselves we are all self-centered and selfish to our core. Mercy is a quality that must be developed in us, and it is a quality only a regenerated heart desires. Yet, even for the redeemed, there are obstacles that must be overcome to develop a heart of mercy.
The first is our self-centeredness. Being absorbed in our own issues and perceived problems make it hard to enter into and understand the suffering of others. We can become used to pleasant circumstances of home, family, material blessings and good health, which makes it hard to feel empathy for those who are homeless, whose families are dysfunctional, those affected by poverty or experiencing chronic health problems. Those who are merciful, Paul says, “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). When Jesus encountered the sick, He was ‘moved with compassion’ and healed them (Mark 1:41). When we desire the quality of mercy, God gives us the grace to look beyond ourselves and see where others are hurting and need help and compassion.
Our natural self-centeredness displays itself as an emotional distance from the suffering of others. But we can also be blinded to the plight of others by a preoccupation with our own perceived suffering. This is called self-pity and is the second obstacle to address if we are to be merciful. When we do look past our self-centeredness and see the pain of others, we often think that we have even bigger troubles. We look at the problems of others and think; “I should have it so good. If they think they have problems, well, I have problems too.” When one has that attitude, it is impossible to develop a heart of mercy.
When we see others in need, we seldom see the full extent of their problems. When we see the plight of others, we only see the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg,’ we never truly know the extent of anyone’s suffering. It’s true, we all have our problems, but the merciful are those who are no so self-consumed that they will not have sympathy for the troubles of others.
There is a third barrier to having the quality of mercifulness, and that is our pride. We see someone in difficult circumstances and think that they must deserve it because of something they have done. But the Bible makes it clear, suffering is not always a result of sin. In the opening verses of the Book of Job, we see that God allows suffering to come upon people for reasons other than their sin. This lesson is driven home further in John 9 when Jesus and His disciples come upon a man born blind. His disciples ask if his suffering is because of his sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus says, neither. “Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3). We can never assume that someone is suffering as a result of their sin. And even when it appears that someone is suffering because of sin, we must never be disdainful or feel morally superior. Such thinking will never result in developing a heart of mercy. Here the old saying is appropriate: “There but for the grace of God go I.” When we remember that this is true, then we or on the road to developing a heart of mercy for others.
Finally, our selfishness prevents us from having a heart of mercy. Selfishness is different from self-centeredness. Self-centered people can be generous, but that generosity is usually wrapped in a narrow view of life where they are at the center of their story. But the selfish are not generous; they want to keep all they have for themselves. But to be merciful carries a cost in time, money and emotional energy. Beyond question, life in the 21st century is busy and, with the demands of family and work, it seems there is little time, money or emotional energy to extend selfless mercy to those in need. But God’s goal is to transform us into the likeness of Jesus (Romans 8:30), and one of the areas He transforms through the Spirit is our natural inclination to be selfish. God wants us to be generous with the resources He has given us, and when we are, we extend mercy.
Jesus says the merciful are blessed. John Calvin writes this regarding Matthew 5:7:
Here there is a paradox set against human judgment. The world reckons those are blessed who are free of outside troubles to attend to their own peace, but Christ here says they are blessed who are not only prepared to put up with their own troubles but also take on other peoples’, to help them in distress, freely to join them in their time of trial, and, as it were, to get right assistance. (Institutes, I, 171).
The merciful are those who take on the problems of others even when they have problems of their own. And for this, Jesus says, they are promised blessing. ‘They shall receive mercy.’ (Matthew 5:7b).