God puts mercy, faithfulness into action

Published: January 21, 2016

This is the second column in a 13-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Many spiritual leaders have observed that the experience of loss and being overwhelmed with misery brings us to the edge of what it means to be human, and ironically makes us most open to an experience of the mystery that we know as God. Perhaps these raw moments in life bring us to present ourselves to God in a fully honest and even dangerous way.

The psalms of God’s people express the human situation of bitterness and rivalry, joy and hope, in language that is blunt and void of any desire to pretend to feel otherwise. We might wish that we could feel at home with the world and at peace with all that surrounds us, but our lived experience teaches us that as often as not we feel out of balance and even abandoned.

The psalmists cry out to God demanding to be heard, longing to be answered and hoping to be transformed. This is the language and the emotion of a relationship that is vital to the human search for meaning, the language of a people who are wed to a God who embodies mercy and faithful love.

God made a covenant with his people in the desert, renewed it with them in the monarchy as they settled in Israel, and renewed it again in the return from exile in Babylon. This covenant relationship was to be marked by the very qualities of God: righteousness, justice and mercy.

The mercy we speak of in this relationship is expressed in the Hebrew word “hesed,” which also may be translated as “faithful love” or “loving faithfulness” or even “loyalty.” Hesed is not simply a state of being or a feeling but it is something that is done for another. God shows mercy and we are to show mercy.

In Psalm 118, the opening and closing refrain are the same: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy endures forever.” The psalmist goes on to describe how in times of danger God and God alone was worthy of trust. God showed mercy and faithfulness by coming to the aid of Israel who was surrounded by enemies, by providing strength and might that saved them. Showing mercy is an action on behalf of another.

Psalm 89 begins with a verse that states the message in two ways to drive home to God that divine faithfulness is needed even when it seems Israel’s kings have been defeated: “I will sing of your mercy forever, Lord, proclaim your faithfulness through all ages.” Mercy and faithfulness are God’s eternal attributes, attributes that Israel begs to be put to use on their behalf.

Similarly, in Psalm 90, when God’s chosen community is in distress, the words of prayer are intended to remind God to be faithful and merciful to his people. They feel God’s wrath and confess their own sinfulness and cry out “Have pity on your servants! Fill us at daybreak with your mercy … show your deeds to your servants” (verses 13, 14, 16). Again, mercy is action.

The most profound hymn of lament in Scripture could arguably be the entire book of Lamentations. Written at a time when Judah’s leaders had been forced into exile by their Babylonian enemies, Lamentations reads as a long funeral dirge. The royal city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and its temple lies in ruins. It seems that God’s people have been abandoned, that their God cannot compete with the power of Babylon’s deity Marduk.

The people are grieving their loss and accepting their exile as punishment for their own sin, but they are conflicted since their God seems to be absent when they are most in distress. The writer describes the taunting that they must have heard from alien people, those who see only the loss and do not know their proud history.

Out of this raw sense of loss, words of grace appear in 3:22-23: "The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning — great is your faithfulness!"

Perhaps, when at rock bottom, it takes a sunrise to remember that darkness is not our only friend (Psalm 88:19). As with God’s people in ancient times, we too can call on the mercy of God and trust God to turn mercy into action. And then prepare ourselves to act in mercy as well.

Study Questions

  • In your experience, when has loss or confusion or difficulty led you to seek a renewed relationship with God?
  • Listen carefully to the words of our Sunday liturgy. How often do we call upon God’s mercy? What message does the Church reinforce with these liturgical prayers?
  • In Lamentations, the break of day is a sign of God’s mercy and compassion. What natural signs speak to you of God’s mercy?
  • What evidence of Gods’ mercy have you experienced in recent weeks? Think about how you may have become aware of God acting on your behalf.

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Jan. 23, 2016. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.