Spirit Home > Spiritual Word Meanings > Define Mercy, Grace, and Compassion
grace [ < Old French, < Latin grâtia, < grâtus (pleasing, favorable) ] unmerited favor.
Unfortunately, in today's English, the adjectives for grace, 'gracious' and 'graceful', no longer are 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 most 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 less 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 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. 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."
John R. W. Stott
"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
You can go see if the dictionary offers you any grace.
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. 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.
You can also check for 'compassion' in the dictionary.
"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. It is rooted in love: God shows mercy because God loves us and forgives us. 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 an end 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 have the least mercy for 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?
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.
You can look up 'mercy' in the dictionary. (But does this mean the dictionary can show you mercy?)
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|ver: 02 September 2011|
Grace and Mercy. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Longman.