What Does It Mean that God Is Merciful?

Mercy comes at a high price: the very blood of Christ. Mercy is not God overlooking our sin. It is the loving redirection of the judgment of that sin to another. It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood that secures mercy for us.

Rick Kirby
Chain broken then turns into doves

The word mercy is one of those words that many of us grew up hearing all the time, but we possibly never truly understood its meaning. If I were in my grandmothers’ presence for any length of time, both would eventually have reason to call on the Lord with the famous southern prayer, “Laud, have mercy!” 

In that context, I knew exactly what mercy was. It was whatever the Lord would do for my grandmothers to help them not skin my hide. As the years passed and I matured spiritually, I began to suspect that the word mercy likely carried a much deeper meaning than my grandmothers’ usage, especially as it related to God. 

On more than one occasion, through the years, I have found this to be true as God daily displays deeper and deeper depths of his merciful character in ways that always leave me in awe. 

This is, in fact, the question which we are seeking to answer. What does mercy reveal about the heart and character of God? The only place we can find answers to this question and others like it is in the word of God. 

God’s Wrath and Mercy

There are fewer greater displays of the merciful character of God than what can be seen in the life of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story of Lot’s waywardness and rescue is one of those accounts that leaves me with an unsettled twinge in the caverns of my soul. 

And just between you and me, I’m almost offended that God would extend his hand of compassion to a man like Lot, but then the Spirit reminds me that I’m also a man like Lot. What does this man’s life and, most importantly, God’s response to it reveal about the God we claim to know and love?

In Genesis 19, we find Lot and his family living in a city called Sodom. This may mean little to you unless you are aware of the symbolism of the city. To this very day, the city and its reputation are what inspire our English term, sodomy. The city and its inhabitants are a picture of what the Creator’s beautiful world looks like when it starts to unravel because of the curse of sin. 

Sodom represents a world where man seeks to define for himself what is good and evil, rather than trusting and yielding to God’s definitions. The Bible is not ambiguous about its assessment of Sodom and its inhabitants when we are told, “The men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the LORD” (Genesis 13:13). 

If that were not enough, the description is repeated in Genesis 18:20, and we see that the wickedness is so great that it demands the Lord’s judgment. Sodom is the antithesis of what God created in the garden, and yet it is here that we find Lot and his family.  

The Need for God’s Mercy

However, Lot is not merely an inhabitant of the city. The fact that we find him, “sitting in the gate” (Genesis 19:1) indicates that Lot had a place of influence and leadership in the city. He has obviously become part of the very fabric of the city. 

Long before Lot makes his mark on Sodom, it seems that Sodom has already made its mark on him. When Abraham allowed Lot to select the land of his preference, the Bible says that Lot, “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Genesis 13:12), which is an apparent clue that Lot’s heart and affections were bent toward the city and the pleasures it afforded long before he made it his residence. 

Do you know people like Lot? It seems there are many people, that no matter how many opportunities life presents them, they always seem to be drawn to degradation and impurity and those things which the Apostle Paul referred to as “deeds of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19). Sodom represents all that’s broken in humanity, and it becomes clear that the city merely reflects the idolatrous affections in Lot. 

God’s Mercy for Lot

In fact, there is a very subtle contrast revealed in the narrative of Lot which reminds us that this is not the first time this story has been told. When Abraham allowed Lot to choose for himself the land on which he and his clan would dwell, we read that Lot chose the valley of the Jordan. 

The valley of the Jordan is described as being “like the garden of the LORD” (Genesis 13:10), and because of its Eden-like qualities, Lot claims it for his own. Lot and the valley are reminiscent of Adam and the garden. And like Adam, there seems to be something in Lot that longs for more than what God, himself, has offered. Lot is drawn to Sodom like a magnet. 

The boundless depths of Lot’s depravity continue to emerge as he welcomes two strangers to town which are revealed to be angels on a mission (Genesis 19:1). For a fleeting moment, there seems to be a glimmer of good in Lot as he seeks to guard and protect the outsiders from the dangers of Sodom’s wicked men (Genesis 19:1-3). 

But just as our hope in Lot begins to grow, we read of his deplorable plan to stave off the vile men who are driven by their insatiable appetites. Lot offers to give over his two virgin daughters to the pack of wolves in exchange for the safety of strangers. 

Thankfully, the Lord intervenes and overrides Lot’s own mindless strategies, but it seems that at every turn Lot is making decisions that cry out for God’s judgment upon him. Lot makes it easy for the casual observer to conclude that if anyone deserves God’s wrath, it is Lot. 

The two angels inform Lot that they have come to Sodom to destroy it because of its wickedness but not before they lead Lot and his family to safety. If I am reading this story for the first time, there is an element of surprise that causes me great pause, but the surprise might not be for the reasons you think. I am not surprised by Sodom’s imminent doom, but I am stunned by Lot’s rescue. 

God Is Just

The cynic in me says that Lot has made his bed, now it’s time for him to lie in it. All choices have consequences, and Lot had every opportunity to make better decisions. But before we make quick work of Lot’s condemnation, let’s take note that Lot is not the main character in this story, and his apparent condemnation is not the final chapter. 

Even as the fire begins to fall, the Bible says that Lot “hesitated” (Genesis 19:16). Only God knows why Lot might have hesitated even as the lives of his family lay in the balance. But is it possible that Lot’s heart was so welded to the city and its ways that walking away was a challenge? It is in Lot’s hesitation that we read the stunning statement that pierces the darkness and draws our attention heavenward. 

Despite Lot’s slowness to depart the burning city, the angels “seize” the family by their hands in order to do for them what they are seemingly unwilling to do for themselves, and we are told that this salvation scene is made possible because the Lord was “merciful to him” (Genesis 19:16, ESV). 

If God would have allowed this family to go down with the city, there would be few of us, if any, who would accuse God of any injustice. Surely this was what Lot deserved. In the same way that all men deserve death, hell, and judgment because of their sinful rebellion, so too, Lot is deserving of God’s judgment. 

However, God restrains his righteous judgment for no reason other than his own goodness. Be careful, however, not to confuse God’s mercy or his restraint as simple oversight on God’s part. 

When God’s law is broken someone must bear the weight of that offense. In Lot’s case, as in mine and yours, mercy comes at a high price: the very blood of Christ. Mercy is not God overlooking our sin. It is the loving redirection of the judgment of that sin to another. 

What Does This Mean?

When God withholds the judgment from us that we rightly deserve, he lays it squarely on the blood-soaked shoulders of our Redeemer. It is no coincidence that in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the place where the blood is offered for the sins of the people is called the “mercy seat.” 

But the effects of the blood applied on this altar were only temporary and only pointed to a greater sacrifice that would one day be made “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10) when Christ would take the penalty for our sin so that we might go free. 

Again, it is no coincidence that Lot and his family were spared their rightful punishment because God “remembered Abraham” (Genesis 19:29). It was God’s covenant faithfulness to Abraham that secured mercy for Lot, and it is the new covenant in Christ’s blood that secures mercy for us. 

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Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of  Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a  Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.

Originally published May 04, 2020.