In my younger, decidedly anti-Christian days, I did not like the way Christians asked God for mercy. It reinforced my idea that “the Christian God” was cruel and punishing. After all, if God was a loving and compassionate God, one would not have to beg for mercy. And if God was cruel and punishing but at the same time righteous and just, then human beings were clearly bad and unworthy. This whole system of thought—shameful people and cruel God—made me want to stay far, far away from Christianity and Christian churches.
"Mercy” is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all-purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. During the '60s, I considered her “Mercy” to be amusing and even charming, but also embarrassingly anachronistic. Now that I am older, however, "Mercy" seems a fine word for moments when other words fail.
God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our misdeeds with disasters. But there is no room for complacency: if we think we’re standing, we should watch that we do not fall.