Some Thoughts on God’s Mercy

Mercy. There are various ways to define it – especially when you’re talking about God’s mercy. At its core it’s an aspect of the Love of God. Sometimes we equate it with compassion.

I’ve often defined mercy as God’s love given to those who need it the most. While grace is God’s love given to those who don’t deserve it. Not perfect definitions, but helpful in distinguishing these two aspects of God’s love.

Think of the people on whom Jesus had compassion – the blind, the deaf, the destitute, and the dead. People who were desperate; people who, humanly speaking, need God’s love the most.

The ultimate mercy is when God gave His love to sinners in the person of Jesus (John 3:16). Sinners certainly need God’s love the most.

We often pray for God’s mercy – for God to be merciful to us. What we want is for God to change our circumstances. To make our life better.

But how do we know when our prayer is answered? How do we know when God gives us His mercy?

If you’re like most people you equate the reception of His mercy with a change in your life. Life becomes better because God answered your prayer the way you wanted Him to answer it.

But is that a good barometer of God’s mercy?

What if in His omniscience He knew that what you cried out for, what your heart longed for, would not be good for you in the long run? What if His mercy was NOT to give you what you wanted? What if, in His love, He knew that it might even be harmful to you in some way?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He knew would be harmful to you?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He didn’t give you because He had something even better for you?

The truth is that you won’t always immediately recognize God’s mercy. Sometimes you’ll see it in hindsight. Sometimes far, far hindsight.

So in the meantime you need to live by faith. Not seeing the evidence but believing in what you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith believes that God always acts toward you in ways that are merciful, even when life doesn’t go your way. It believes that God is merciful even when He disciplines you (Hebrews 12:5-6). It believes that God is always merciful. That there is never a time that He does not act in mercy (sometimes we draw a dichotomy between God’s wrath and His mercy – as if when God disciplines us He stops being merciful. That would mean that God would have to stop being God).

What if, as Laura Story has reminded us in her song Blessings (you can listen to it here), that God loves you too much to give you the little things you want instead of the greater things He has for you. What if the trials of life are His mercies in disguise?

Don’t judge God’s mercy based on how He responds to your prayer. He will always respond in love. He is always merciful.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

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What is Your Mental Image of God?

When you think about God, what do you see in your mind’s eye? How do you imagine God?

Maybe it’s Michelangelo’s image of God in his Sistine Chapel fresco The Creation of Adam. Perhaps it’s Raphael’s depiction of God in his famous painting Ezekiel’s Vision.

Jesus said that God is spirit, that is, He is not material (John 4:24). However, there are a number of times that the Bible records visual depictions of God (2 Chronicles 18:18, Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1:26, 10:1, Daniel 7:13 and Revelation 4:2). They were given to us so that we could in some way understand who He is.

Unfortunately our view of God is sometimes limited by visual images and that’s as far as we get in our knowledge and understanding of God. That’s not just a limited view of God, it can lead to a false view.

There’s so much more to God that we can know from a visual image.

Another way that people imagine God is based on their life experiences. Often their view of God as Father is colored by their own experience with their earthly father. If their biological father was kind and loving, then they see God as a kind and loving Father. If their earthly father was judgmental and harsh, that’s how they think of God.

Both extremes are unfortunate. If your father was kind and good, God is a thousand times kinder and better. To equate Him with the kindness and love of your earthly father is to sell God short.

If your earthly father was a tyrant, well that’s not God at all.

We have to divorce our image of God from artistic depictions or even from our earthly experiences. God is far different from either. And when we limit our image of God, the God that we see in our minds, to images and experiences we miss the best of God.

Your mental image of God is important because how you think about God will determine how you respond to God, how you pray, how you trust. It will determine your entire relationship.

Our God is the most loving, the most gracious, the most merciful, the most caring, the most concerned of anyone you will ever encounter. He is the most of anything and everything that is good and right and righteous and just.

He loves you more than anyone will ever love you. He loves you more than you deserve to be loved. He loves you more than you will ever understand.

The same can be said for His grace to you, His mercy towards you, His care for you, and His concern for you.

It’s important to have a mental image of God that is reflective of who He is in all of His Goodness.

It will make all of the difference in your relationship. It will make all of the difference in how you respond.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle

One of the more difficult assignments that we have as Christians is to offer comfort to people who are going through deep trials. Comfort that is both Biblical and helpful. It’s easy to offer a quick cliché but it’s hard to give genuine comfort that ministers to a hurting soul.

One cliché that we’re all guilty of – even pastors, is to tell someone going through deep trials that God will never give you more than you can handle. That statement has bothered me for a long time. Somehow it never rang true.

Think for a minute – what do we mean by that? Don’t we mean that the person will be healed and not die? Don’t we mean that it will all work out for their good in the end when sometimes it doesn’t?

If that’s NOT what we mean than why don’t we say, God will never give you more than you can handle but you might suffer for the next ten years and then die an agonizing death? Because that’s what happens to some people. Where was God and what happened to His promise?

Too many people go through too deep waters and don’t get through (in a very human sense).

I’m sure that we mean well when we say it. And I’m sure that we believe it to be true. After all Paul says that no temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). That seems to make the case.

But does it?

Pastor Mitch Chase of Kosmosdale Baptist Church has written a great article with the title God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle (I stole my title from him – I just couldn’t think of anything more original!) in which he points out the problem with our common understanding of this verse.

You can find his article here. I’m not going to rehash everything he said because he said it so much better than I could. I would encourage you to read it.

There’s one line in his article, however, that I love: God will give us more than we can handle – but not more than he can.

That’s the truth that we need to share with people who are hurting. GOD CAN HANDLE THIS!

You might not be able to handle it, but HE can. So we turn to Him in faith in our times of deepest need and trust Him to bring us through the dark times.

We trust Him to do what is right in our lives. To do what we need Him to do to make us more like Christ. To change us by our suffering.

We trust Him not to be capricious but to have a purpose for our suffering. To have a reason for our pain.

The next time you have an opportunity to offer words of comfort to a hurting soul point them to Jesus. Tell them that He knows. That He understands. That He can be their rock. That when they’re weak, He’s strong. That when they can’t take it anymore, He’ll be there for them (working through you and His Word).

Put their focus on Jesus.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Thorns

The Thorns

We all have them. Some are larger, some smaller; some hurt more, some less. But we all have them – the thorns of life. Even spiritual giants have them. The Apostle Paul comes to mind (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

No one likes the thorns, they cause heartache, tears, doubt, worry, anger (often at God), sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days. From our perspective they serve no earthly or heavenly good. They are useless intruders that rob us of our peace and happiness.

But what if, as Laura Story sings, what if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise? If you haven’t listen to Blessings in awhile, take time to listen again here.

If you are familiar with Steven Saint’s story you know that he has been enduring tremendous suffering as the result of an accident. Recently he posted this poem online. I shared it on my Facebook site but for those who don’t communicate that way, here it is again.

The Thorn
Martha Snell Nicholson

I stood a mendicant [beggar] of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace,
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.

The thorns of life are not arbitrary nor are they pointless. They have a purpose often greater than we can see. Life would be radically different without the thorns. And not always in a better way.

Think about how the thorns impact your life.

Without the Thorns we would

…trust Him less
…love Him less
…want heaven less
…pray less
…cherish His blessings less
…encourage others less
…grow in Christ less
…grow weary of this world less
…desire God less
…learn about His grace less
…spend time with God less
…experience God’s power less

My heart goes out to those who are being pricked by the thorns. It’s never fun. My prayer is that you will know the grace of God in your time of suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that your thorn will reveal the face of the One who loves you more than any other.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Importance of Symbols

I don’t know when people figured out that symbols were useful, but I suspect it was early on. Some of the earliest written forms were pictorial in nature. Before alphabets were designed people drew symbols. Fast forward several thousand years and Madison Avenue figured out that they could describe a company or product in a hundred words or they could simply show you a picture. So along came the Golden Arches, the Swoosh and the Apple.

The importance of symbols has been reignited in our collect conscience by the recent tragedy in South Carolina and the ensuing debate over one of the most notorious symbols in American history, the Confederate flag. To the proponents of the flag it is a symbol of their proud history and freedom from federal domination. To others it is a symbol of slavery, racism, and hatred.

What is sometimes forgotten in the heat of debate is that symbols are more than pictures – they are powerful images that invoke thoughts and actions in us. By design they are made to produce a response.

The other thing that is sometimes overlooked is that the same symbol can mean different things to different people – people see them in different ways. The Golden Arches can symbolize either cheap, tasty food or obesity; the Swoosh either great shoes or run-away capitalism; the Apple either advanced technology or time-wasting machines. It all depends on how you look at things.

Christianity has used symbols with varying success since the first century. Some groups have used them more extensively and effectively than others. The Eastern Orthodox Church has used symbols in their religious ceremonies for centuries and still does today. Other groups use few symbols.

Without question the greatest Christian symbol is the cross. And it, like most symbols, is viewed differently by different people. To the Romans the cross represented an instrument of death. To the Jews it was a symbol of shame. To the Greeks it was a symbol of foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). But to the Christian the cross has always been a symbol of the most powerful love ever expressed to man. It is central to our theology and our lives. Without the cross there is no forgiveness, no hope and no future. This one symbol represents everything about our faith.

And in a manner of speaking it represents everything about God. Thousands of books have been written attempting to explain God to us but we still see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We’re still left with unanswered questions. But there is a way to know God (I’m not neglecting the Bible here). Without being too simplistic, if you want to understand God just look at the symbol – it will tell you what you need to know.

It is the Cross that teaches us about God’s love, His wisdom, His forgiveness, His nature, His eternal plan, His sacrifice, His kingdom, His mercy, His compassion, His justice, His grace, His humility and so much more.

And it is the Cross that calls people to a response of faith.

God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

You Have Value!

One of the things that people often struggle with is their personal worth. I’m not talking about your monetary worth but your value as a person. Each of us has a certain value. Unfortunately many people have allowed their value to be determined by other people who use their own personal standards to determine how much you’re worth. Many times people value us, not for who we are, but for what we can do for them. They might value you on how well you do your job, or on what they can get from you or on how you benefit them in some way, instead of valuing you for your worth as an individual created in the image of God.

How other people value us also determines how we value ourselves. Just because we are human, we see our own significance in light of other people’s opinions of us. If we sense that other people approve of us our self-esteem is high, but if people don’t value us our self-esteem suffers. We tend to judge ourselves by how other people judge us.

We also judge ourselves by how well we perform. If we do something well (our job, raising kids, singing, etc) we have a good sense of self-worth, but if we don’t perform well, we begin to doubt our personal value. Judging ourselves by how well we perform is also tied into how we perceive other people are looking at us. We want to perform in order to gain other people’s approval and recognition.

As Christians we need to make sure that we see our value, not in the approval of people or in how well we perform, but in how God looks at our life. God does not value you for what He can get from you nor in how well you perform (even for Him). God values you simply because He delights to do so. Matthew 6:26 says Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And the answer is yes, you are worth more to God than anything else in His creation and it is God’s delight simply to value you for who you are: a unique individual created in His image.

God also values you because you are one of His children (1 John 3:1). In the same way (and to an even greater degree) that a human father values his children, God values His children. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him (Psalm 103:13). God places great value on you (shown by His compassion) simply because you belong to Him.

Don’t let someone else’s opinions determine your value. The only opinion that really counts is God’s. That’s the essence of Romans chapter fourteen. Life is to be lived for God alone (Romans 14:7-8), and it is to God alone that you will give an answer for your life (Romans 14:10-11). Make sure that what He thinks about you is more important than what people think about you.

And remember, you have great value to God, not because you perform well, but simply because He loves you.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What the World Needs Now is . . .

Back in 1965 (some of you can remember that far back) a song was released called What the World Needs Now is Love. It was destined to reach number 7 on the charts that year. If I remember right it was later used to sell soft drinks.

The message of the song was summarized in the words, what the world needs now is love, sweet love it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. No argument that the world lacks a lot of love. I think however that there’s something else missing in our world that is just as important as love and that is compassion. I know it doesn’t sing as well but it’s still true. We don’t live in a very compassionate world.

I’m not saying that our society is totally bankrupt when it comes to compassion. I just think that we’re very selective in our application of it. We show compassion to the person fighting cancer. We show compassion to the family who just lost everything in a fire. But in other areas we feel justified in withholding our compassion.

There’s little if any compassion for people who come illegally to our country to find a better way of life for their families. There’s often little to no compassion for the drug addict who wastes all of his/her money to support a bad habit. Or the prisoner who is serving time because they committed a crime. When it comes to issues like these our fallback position is that we are a country of laws. But do laws preempt compassion? Yes, they might have broken our laws but that doesn’t mean we can throw compassion out the window.

We often read in the New Testament that Jesus had compassion on people. He was moved by their sickness, hunger, and poverty – things over which they had little control. And we understand that kind of compassion and even agree with it. But there’s one story in the New Testament that puts an entirely different slant on the issue. It’s the parable of the Lost Son, or more commonly called the parable of Prodigal Son.

We don’t need to retell the entire story because you’re probably familiar with it. It might be a good idea, however, for you to read it again. You’ll find it in Luke chapter 15. Here’s where the story intersects with compassion. The prodigal son made all of the wrong choices. He rebelled against his father; rejected his father’s home, standards and love; and lived a wanton and wasteful life. Not unlike many people today.

But when he returned to his father, the Bible says that his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him (Luke 15:20). He didn’t lecture the son on his violation of the law. He didn’t make him serve a probationary period before he could return to the family. He didn’t make him grovel. The father related to his son, not on the basis of the law, but on the basis of compassion.

Isn’t that how God relates to us? Before Christ we were worse than illegal immigrants, drug addicts or criminals. In fact in God’s eyes we lived in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (Ephesians 2:3). In other words we did what we wanted to do. It was all about us. And God, just like the father in the story, had compassion on us.

I’m not advocating that we ignore our laws. They are important. Without them we would live in anarchy. But for the Christian laws never preempt compassion. In fact for the Christian you could make the argument that compassion always trumps law.

Somehow we need to figure out how to implement compassion even in the most difficult situations because What the World Needs Now is Compassion. And if they don’t see it in Christians they won’t see it anywhere.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve