Grace is what God gives in order to show us love.

Grace, Mercy, and Compassion

From God to You; From You to All Others

Spirit Home > > Define Grace, Mercy, Compassion, and Gratitude

Read this page, in your own language.

Define the meaning of what mercy is about.

What Is Grace?

grace [ < Old French, < Latin grâtia, < grâtus (pleasing, favorable) ] unmerited favor.

Unfortunately, in today's English, the adjectives for grace, 'gracious' and 'graceful', are no longer well-connected to the idea of giving unmerited favor or being characterized by giving it. "Gracious" has more to do with simple courtesy than favor; "graceful" is about movement or form. A "grace period" is a temporary relief before you eventually have to pay up. These are, in a way, something good, but God's grace (and the grace we're called to give) is mostly aimed at the mud, the scoundrels, and the hurts of daily life. It's not genteel. Grace is undeserved -- you get it when you deserve something not so good. That means grace is also, by definition, unjust. Thank God that what goes around doesn't have to come around, otherwise we'd all be sunk.

The grace of God is given to all, freely. God gives you the faith that sets you straight, and gives you the Spirit that changes you so you have Christ's goodness. Thus, it is God's grace that lets loose the riches of God's love.

God keeps this grace from no one. However if you don't accept divine grace, it sits there without doing its full wonders on you, like an unopened and forgotten Christmas present. And we humans don't like the implications of the gift, namely, that we have no way to do this ourselves. So we tend not to take this divine grace until we have nothing else left and nowhere else to turn, and even then we might spurn it. Yet, if we open the gift of grace, the gift itself shows us how to give it to others. Grace is free, but it does not come cheap. The One who loves us pays for grace, by way of all the grief and sorrow that can only be found in someone who loves, right through to being executed over it. The same is true for us when we, like God, give unmerited favor to those we love, as God calls on us to do. There's more than enough grace to go around to everybody, more than enough to do the job. More than enough for you.

"Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected."

"Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues."

"I do not at all understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us."

"Left with an unknowing dependence on grace in the instant of an arising desire, we very often truly do not know what to do. As frustrating and painful as the dilemma may be, there is a real beauty in it. It is precisely at those times of not knowing that we are most alive in realizing our need for grace."
Gerald May, *The Awakened Heart*, p. 122

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come
'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
---- "Amazing Grace", by John Newton

What Is Compassion?

compassion : [ < Latin compassus (to sympathize) < co- (with) + pati (to suffer)] A powerful, deep awareness of someone else's suffering, making it so that you want them not to suffer. See also 'sympathy', 'commiseration', and 'pity'. The New Testament Greek words are eleos and oiktirmos.

The root word from the Latin is the same as that of 'passion', something you want so much that you suffer from not doing or having or accomplishing it. The root meaning 'to suffer' is also used of Christ en route to His crucifixion. For a Christian, all compassion is shaped by and rooted in Jesus' Passion, in which His awareness of our suffering drove Him to do something about it. In compassion, a sense of solidarity develops; your suffering becomes my suffering. A few people have been said to have empathic gifts, where they can actually enter into part of another's suffering or pain, and bear with them the part of it they can reach. (It probably feels as much like a curse as it does a gift.) But no one needs such a gift to have compassion. You only need enough love in you to want someone's suffering to end or at least become more bearable.

There are some related words. Sympathy is being sad about others' sadness. Commiseration is when that sorrow is expressed to the saddened ones. Pity leads you to want to help them if you could. Compassion goes one step further. It is more than a mere desire to help; it creates a determination, a decision to actually help, even if only in some small way. Compassion puts something of yourself on the line: perhaps your power over someone, or your time, or wealth, or effort, or healing skills. When it's strong, compassion overrides angry or vengeful desires. Compassion differs from mercy in that compassion is about an emotional connection that moves you toward action, while mercy is about the action itself. Compassion can lead to mercy. Jesus' compassion led him to take actions for the woman caught in adultery, the crowds which came for healing and teaching, and the woman at the well. God's compassion is like that of a father for his sons.

"Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
----- Henri Nouwen

What Is Mercy?

"I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."
----- Abraham Lincoln, from a speech in Washington D.C. in 1865, said as he was preparing the United States for life after the US Civil War.

mercy: [< Medieval Latin merces (reward, compassionate action) < merx (merchandise); influenced by Latin miserere < miserêrî (to have pity)] compassionate action or treatment; relief from distress; a tendency from personal character to act compassionately; to be ruthful, to show forbearance or kindness.

In Scripture and in the Christian faith, mercy means the giving of grace to people who don't deserve it, or showing compassion to someone you have power or authority over. It is foremostly part of the character of God. Jesus said that the merciful are happy because they will receive mercy. There is purpose for God's mercy :

Mercy is grace's effect on justice, and thus it is another side of justice. It is rooted in love: God shows mercy because God loves us and forgives us. Through grace and mercy, God offers those who do wrong a new chance to get it right, or at least better, a new opportunity to follow Christ. Mercy is cause for hope. Jesus' act of loving mercy stands behind the entire Christian faith. Mercy is limited only by justice, which in this context is a limit to mercy for someone(s) in order that there be mercy for the rest. The word is of a piece with grace, in that God shows mercy in abundance and without cost. As with so much of what God gives, there is no supply shortage of mercy. A key biblical instance of the term "mercy" is found in 1 Timothy 1:16:

"But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the foremost [of sinners], Christ Jesus might display his limitless patience, to make me an example for those who would believe on him for eternal life."

Mercy sometimes functions as a spiritual gift. The Spirit gives you a special effectiveness or ability to give mercy in a manner or timing that crucially matters for softening the suffering of others, in some direct way. The right act of mercy is done at just the right time. You become merciful. When it happens, it's a less mystical side of an impulse not unlike empathy, but without quite the same 'inner radar'.

We're all called to be merciful toward each other. But sometimes the one you are the least merciful to is yourself. The first step toward inner healing may be to recognize your wrongs, but for the healing to take place, it's essential that you show yourself some mercy by not thinking horribly of yourself. What good is it if you learn to practice mercy from being merciful to others when you teach yourself cruelty by being cruel to yourself? Your task is not to whip yourself, but to actually change.

Mercy On Those Who Doubt

One of the stranger passages in the New Testament is in the letter of Jude, where he writes of Jesus' mercy in giving eternal life. Then he writes, "And have mercy on some, who are doubting." (v. 22) This is an instruction not to give punishment when someone's doubts are showing, to give space for them as they sort things through. (In this case, 'doubt' is clearly not the same as disbelief, though that too might entail mercy.) Then, it says that on some, we are to "have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the garment polluted by their bodies" (v. 23). It's not about hating the person, for we're to show mercy on them. But it's also not about their smelly clothes. Just as a person can be 'clothed' in righteousness (so says the apostle Paul), they can also be 'clothed' with the stuff of ungodly character and concerns. The 'fear' is that such ungodliness might start to involve you as you relate to them, that you might start acting as they do or that you might fall for their tricks. So care must be taken when being merciful with them, lest it turn you away from Christ or get you caught up in their merciless tricks. Yet this fear is a qualifier, not the action itself: your rejection ("hating") of their ungodliness is not a reason to fail to be merciful toward them.

What Is Gratitude?

gratitude [ < Latin grâtitûdô < grâtus (pleasing < favorable)] The state of being grateful. Grateful: appreciative of some sort of benefit you receive from someone; especially to the point of doing something in return to please your benefactor. Gratitude is a frame of mind rooted in grace. In the same word-field: thankful, appreciative.

Gratitude is a key motive for Christian morality, and thus any Christian way of living. God did everything to show love for me, so I want to do right by people, I want to live the kind of life that God would be happy about. A growing proportion of us have little idea of what gratitude really means. Saying "thank you" is too often a way of being polite, not a way of being. They want to think of themselves as being in control, as the one who makes their life tick. But tonight your soul may be required of you. And if it isn't, it may well be because God wanted to give you another day to remember all the things God and other people did for you along the way. An attitude of gratitude naturally leads to love, and repayment by acts of love. Being grateful to God leads to acts which, whatever else they may be, are acts of worship praise!. There are many whom each of us have every reason to be grateful for; the challenge is to treat them accordingly.

The link between grace and gratitude runs like this: someone does a beneficial or helpful action that is beyond what was merited or expected (grace). Then someone responds by seeking to act in kind (gratitude). Gratitude flows from understanding how each of us is dependent on what others do, and treasuring each action of grace for all it's worth.

What do you do with a debt of gratitude? You pay it back to the person(s) who showed grace to you. Then, you pay it forward, to someone else who could use some grace right now. Namely, each and all of us.

Gratitude Quotes

"Gratitude is a virtue of the highest excellence, as it implies a feeling and generous heart, and a proper sense of responsibility."
Noah Webster

"When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?"
G.K. Chesterton

"To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us - and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference."
Thomas Merton

"In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, *Letters and Papers from Prison*

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."
William Arthur Ward

"Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures. But people with grateful dispositions are attuned to the gift economy where people are motivated by sympathy as well as self-interest. In the gift economy intention matters. We’re grateful to people who tried to do us favors even when those favors didn’t work out. In the gift economy imaginative empathy matters. We’re grateful because some people showed they care about us more than we thought they did. We’re grateful when others took an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves."
David Brooks, "The Structure of Gratitude", NY Times, July 28 2015, p.A23