by Brian Sleeth
Grace and mercy are two words that are often used together in the Bible, but both words don’t mean the same thing. “Grace” is getting something you couldn’t earn and that you don’t deserve, which is how it works with salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Whereas grace is God giving you something you can’t earn and don’t deserve, mercy is God not giving you what you do deserve. What do we all deserve? Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.”
According to the Bible, we are all sinners who deserve God’s judgment. By God’s mercy, we are not given the just penalty for our sin. This is because Christ took our place before God’s judgment. He bore what we deserve so that God could extend his mercy and grace to us.
But grace and mercy aren’t one-time, transformational experiences for the Christian. God intends for us to continue to be transformed by grace and mercy throughout the rest of our lives.
About three years after becoming a pastor in 1999, I went through a “grace awakening” experience. I “got grace” at a much deeper level than I did before. I understood in a fresh, liberating way that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever I can do to make God love me more than he already does in Christ.
In 2009, I went through a “mercy awakening.” I was starting a church in the Detroit area when The Great Recession began. For those of you who remember, Detroit was one of the areas of the country that felt the greatest impact. Financial support dried up, and we had to close the church. I lost everything I had, including my house. At the time, all four of my kids were very young, and I was terrified about how I would provide for them.
There are two word pictures that help describe how I felt during that time. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff looking down into a bottomless abyss. I also felt like I had fallen out of an airplane and just kept falling more and more each day, never hitting bottom.
I became despondent. I stopped eating and lost a lot of weight quickly. I felt deep sorrow. I cried bitter tears. I prayed that God would take my life and end my misery.
All I had was the promises of God in the Bible and prayer. The words in many of the Psalms, that before had seemed like they had nothing to do with me, took on a deeply personal meaning as I prayed through my suffering.
Psalm 34:18 promises, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” and Psalm 147:3 assures us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
God didn’t let me tumble into oblivion. He didn’t take my life. He rescued me. He healed me. He gave my family a place to live until we got back on our feet.
God wasn’t just merciful to me to a certain degree; he lavished inexhaustible, life-giving, extravagant mercy on me that transformed me and set me on a path of helping the homeless. He took my heart of compassion for others who are hurting and enlarged it exponentially.
Mercy is now burned into my soul. I am still being transformed by it, even today. As I have experienced God’s mercy toward me, it is the fuel of my turning around and helping others who need God’s mercy.
May we all grow in our experience of God’s grace and mercy and extend that same mercy to the hurting and helpless around us.
About Brian: Rev. Dr. Brian Sleeth is the Executive Director of The Christian Outreach Center of Baton Rouge, a Christ-centered homeless prevention ministry. This includes oversight of The Outreach Center itself, Christian Outreach Transitional Employment Services, and The Purple Cow thrift stores.