Daniel 9:18 “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.”
Not all the help we receive means we mean a lot to the helper. I had trouble installing new software on my computer awhile back, so I contacted customer support. After a few emails back and forth, a nice man named Jonah was able to pinpoint my problem. He got me up and running. He was a big help, and I greatly appreciate it, but I don’t think he’s going to start sending me Christmas and birthday cards now, or showing up at important family celebrations. I don’t mean anything to him. I was just case number 01551537, and that’s all I expected.
I once visited someone in the hospital who was struggling with great pain. One of the nurses in particular was gifted at helping this patient get relief. When my friend thanked the nurse for caring so much, the nurse made a rather startling confession. “I don’t care about you or your pain. I care about my job. That’s the reason why I work so hard at this.”
Sometimes we help because we care so deeply about someone, but not always. Sometimes our mercy, if you can call it that, comes because we have been made to feel guilty. So it comes with a grudge. If we can advertise the help we give a little, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day whom Jesus accused of making a public spectacle of their charitable gifts (complete with a Jewish version of the mariachi band playing in the background), we might like what it does for our pride. Maybe, like my software support friend, it’s just our job. At times, it may be nothing more than a matter of necessity: the stalled car ahead is blocking the road, and you aren’t going to get through until someone pushes it off to the side, so you get out to help.
Sometimes we might suspect even God’s help comes for less than sympathetic reasons. Does he assist because he has created these great cosmic principles by which everything is supposed to work, and he doesn’t want to break his own rules? Is the help I get today nothing more than a piece in a puzzle that all fits into some far grander scheme, and it is just my good fortune that my need fit into that plan? Many religions have gods who work mostly out of self-interest. Eastern religions don’t even have personal gods, just an impersonal “force” of some sort, and how can an impersonal force care about me at all?
But “mercy” means more than God’s help. And mercy is what Daniel pleads. Mercy means that when God looks at our misery he is genuinely moved by what he sees. He is filled with compassion. Crying children stir something inside of us that makes us want to help, to relieve their suffering, even if the children are complete strangers. It’s a matter of the heart as much as it is the hands.
We see God’s mercy so often in Jesus’ ministry. He came to preach to a people who were spiritually starving, whose souls were being fed the spiritual equivalent of sawdust–no grace, just rules. Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw these crowds, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When he later feeds the 5000, he had originally intended to get away for a little vacation. But a large crowd tracks him down, and when Jesus sees them he has compassion on them and heals their sick, and teaches them, and feeds them. When Jesus goes to comfort his friends Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus, and he sees them crying, he is so moved by their grief that he starts to cry himself. Then, of course, he follows with the mercy of bringing Lazarus back to life.
Do you see what this means for you and me? Because Jesus is full of mercy, we have more than God’s help. We have a place in his heart. Our misery genuinely moves him, and it moves him to help. Even when help seems a long time in coming, and our prayers don’t seem to be answered, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. Sometimes God’s mercies involve things that pain him to see us suffer, but the pain is necessary to help and save us. He lets it continue until we are safe. Ultimately, mercy led him to give his life to rescue us from our own sins against him. Those sins are the root of our misery.
His relationship with us is never a cold, impersonal, professional relationship. Mercy means that we have a place in his heart.