In a city where we once lived, the telephone service provided an additional feature: customers could dial a number and then listen to a message of cheer, encouragement, or even sympathy—a different one each day. We found that intriguing and we would dial it now and then. But one day, dialing the number, it produced only a matter-of-fact announcement: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”
Expressions of mercy come in different ways. Motives play a role and so does the understanding and vitality that must back it up.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul lists three practices of mercy as a gift. Motives mean a lot as far as Paul is concerned: “…he who does acts of mercy, let him do them with cheerfulness.“ (Romans 12:8)
We must be merciful for the right reasons. Paul knew that a form of mercy can be practiced for reasons of pride, selfishness or a mere sense of duty. Mercy practiced for inferior reasons can be damaging and at best is short lived or even cruel (Proverbs 12:10). Paul proposed that mercy be practiced with cheerfulness. Cheer cannot really be faked. We must sense our own deep needs. The needs of our neighbors are basically not foreign to us. Only then can we be ready to show mercy to those in need and distress.
Perhaps it could be said that this kind of Christian motivation is opposed by at least three enemies that lurk in our hearts:
- We find ourselves spelling out conditions that play a role. We tend to limit our giving to a sensible trickle: after all, we have many obligations.
- Those benefitting from our largesse should be cooperative and show themselves worthy of our mercy.
- We tend to feel that our help should produce timely and reasonable results and solutions.
In the next verse Paul gives the basic reason: “Love must be sincere…”