Justice vs. Mercy: “Take Mercy Every Time!”

“All I want is what’s coming to me!”

Henry was being obnoxiously persistent in the church business meeting. Finally, in exasperation he blurted out that statement.

An elderly sister in the pew behind him said softly, “Sit down, Henry. If you got what was coming to you, you’d be in hell.”

Henry was demanding justice; Henry needed mercy.

This week driving down Interstate 55 below Jackson, Mississippi, I kept noticing bits and pieces of pink insulation batting everywhere.

After a few miles, we came upon two 18-wheelers pulling halves of a large mobile home. One of the units was shedding, littering the highway. Bits and pieces of the trailer were flying from the open top and being strewn across the countryside.

I dialed “*HP” for the Mississippi Highway Patrol and reported the offender. The dispatcher assured me they would jump right on the matter.

They never showed up.

I was wanting justice. I wanted the cops to pull these drivers over, read them the riot act for the careless way they had secured the mobile home and for littering the countryside, and if they didn’t issue tickets, at least force them to tie everything down.

I suspect this is a the way it is with most of us. I want justice to be done when it involves other people. But for myself, mercy is a better choice.

This week is the one year anniversary of the tornadoes that did so much damage and took so many lives across the Southland on Wednesday, April 27, 2011. I remember it for a hundred reasons. For one, I was stuck on the highway in North Alabama soon after some tornadoes had gone through and just before others even worse arrived.

I saw a small example of justice being served.

On US 278, which connects Cullman and Gadsden, Alabama, cars were backed up for miles as highway workers, power company trucks, and EMS teams worked ahead of us, cleaning up the effects of last night’s tornadoes. Traffic would pull forward a few miles, then come to a halt for a full hour.

It took me four hours to get to Gadsden and hit the interstate north; that’s how slow-moving the traffic was. (In Chattanooga, I arrived just as the tornadoes hit, but that’s another story.)

At one point, when all traffic on the two-lane highway had been halted for a half-hour, motorists were outside, standing around talking. Suddenly, from behind–down the road where we had come from–came an 18-wheeler, passing all the stalled traffic. We looked on incredulously.

“Where does that guy think he’s going?” we wondered. This was a two-lane highway and the shoulders alongside were practically non-existent. Even if he passed us all, there was no place for him to pull into the right lane.

Suddenly, the huge truck began pulling over toward the line of cars. But there was no room. What was he doing?

Then we saw what he had seen.

Coming toward him, from the front of the line, was an Alabama Highway Patrol.

The motorists began to laugh. That trucker was caught with no place to hide.

The trooper stopped, gave the trucker a tongue-lashing he will never forget, then walked over to where we were standing. Someone asked, “Did you give him a ticket?”

The officer said, “I did better than that. I made him go to the end of the line.”

Sure enough, the 18-wheeler began slowly backing up the narrow highway.

The end had to be miles behind. The trucker would need all the skills he had ever learned to maneuver that massive transport backward, down that narrow country highway, in what had to be the longest, toughest drive of his life.

It was a beautiful thing.

How often have we thought we’d love to see a cop at this moment in time. But they’re never there. That day, there was.

Justice is wonderful to behold…when it happens to the other guy. But personally, I prefer mercy.

Here’s another one, this one shorter.

A few days ago as our family had gathered in New Orleans for Margaret’s and my 50th wedding anniversary, our son Marty was driving my wife’s car and had a fender bender. The intersection where it occurred is busy and complex, one I try to avoid whenever possible.

Marty says, “I honestly did not know whose fault it was. The damage was not serious, and no one was hurt. In fact, our car had more damage than hers.”

He told the lady in the other car, “Ma’am, let me give you a hundred dollars and let’s just drive away.”

Oh no. She would not do that. It was all his fault and she was dialing 911 and getting the police out here.

The lady was defiant, adamant, insistent.

She dialed 911, the cops came, talked to both drivers, and then wrote her a ticket for an illegal turn.

How sweet that was.

We do love justice…when it happens to other people. But personally, I’ll take mercy any day of the week.

Let’s talk about mercy.

1. Here’s a well-known prayer for mercy.

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness. According to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)

David was miserable after the crescendoing effect of his sin with Bathsheba became public knowledge. His little act of seduction led to betrayal, lying, and the death of a good man. When David prayed for forgiveness, justice was the last thing he wanted. Had he gotten what he deserved, the Almighty would have snuffed out his candle in the blink of an eye.

He wanted mercy.

Being a wealthy man, David was willing to make big offerings and huge sacrifices for his sin. But that was not what God wanted. David prayed,”Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it. Thou delightest not in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

2. Don’t pray for justice; ask for mercy.

The Lord Jesus even encourages us to ask for mercy, not justice.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a publican (tax-collector; they were known sinners). The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all I possess.”

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift so much as his eyes unto heaven, but beat upon his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself shall be abased, and the one who humbles himself shall be exalted.(Luke 18:10-14)

Nothing is more humbling than asking for mercy. If you can humble yourself, you’ve just qualified.

3. The blessings of Heaven are all about His mercy, my friend.

The Apostle Paul told Titus that salvation was the result of God’s mercy. “Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us….” (Titus 3:5)

Once when Jesus was dining in the home of a Pharisee, a woman known as a notorious sinner slipped into the room and began to worship at the Lord’s feet. (The only way to envision this is to remember that dining parties reclined toward the center, with their feet extended away. She’s out of the action, she thinks.)

While the host sniffs at the intrusion and the sheer gall of this woman entering his home, our Lord gave him a good education in how the Kingdom of God operates.

“Simon, do you see this woman? I entered your house and you gave me no water for my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with fragrant oil. Therefore, I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven,for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).

It’s all of grace and mercy. A broken heart, a humble and childlike spirit.

4. The clue to having received mercy is gratitude and love.

Show me a person without love or a thankful spirit and I’ll show you one still in sin.

But the one who has been forgiven–who knows what an undeserving lout he was, how she deserved severe judgement–is the one consumed by gratitude and love.

Lawrence Bryant had lived a rugged life of sin, even though outwardly he was wealthy and successful. Only after Christ saved him at the age of 43 and opened his eyes to all he had been doing and all he had missed did his life change forever. Ten years later when I became his pastor, I was struck by something unusual about the man.

Whenever we prayed together, which was frequently, Mr. Bryant would begin his conversation with the Father something like this: “Thank you, Lord….. O, thank you, Jesus.” He would grow weepy, and silent for a moment. Then, “Thank you, Lord, for saving me. For forgiving me for a lifetime of sin and rebellion and neglect. Oh, thank you, Jesus.”

I was saved at the age of 11. I had never been into the life of sin as Bryant and so many others knew. So, it took me a while longer in living the Christian life to know the depravity of my own heart, to see the record of my own sins, and to learn what I had done, before I came to appreciate all Christ had done for me.

I am overwhelmed by the mercy of God.

David once said, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. But as the heavens are higher than the earth, so great is His lovingkindness (His grace and mercy) toward us” (Psalm 103:10-11).


Clyde A. Walker wrote a gospel song nearly a hundred years ago which I first heard the Chuck Wagon Gang sing in the 1940s, and was struck by the message. “Justice Called, And Mercy Answered” was its title and its message.

One Sunday night when I was pastoring the First Baptist Church of Kenner, Louisiana, I referenced that truth and that song. Tim Walker, assistant minister of music in our church while getting his seminary, told me after the service, “Clyde A. Walker was my grandfather.” That week, he brought me a copy of the sheet music.

What are the chances?

Wouldn’t I love to know the story behind that song? Tim’s grandfather is long in Heaven now, and we cannot ask him. but I can guarantee you one thing: He knew about mercy. No one thinks of such a truth in a vacuum. Only by experiencing the great and gracious loving forgiveness of God when he deserves it least, only then does he come to appreciate the mercy of the Lord.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice…. (Romans 12:1).

1 thought on “Justice vs. Mercy: “Take Mercy Every Time!”

  1. Thanks for this article. Like so many you write,it causes me to think about the subject and evaluate my beliefs.

    Last weeks blog on the sermon that makes them mad, I used a portion in a sermon I preached to a church in Nashville as I shared my heart about pastoring, before being voted in as bivo-pastor.So thanks for what you do best and that is encouraging all of us to think and evaluate where we stand on a core value or belief in the family of God.

    Today’s blog reminds me of a discussion held in class at SWBTS in the ’70’s under a professor by the name of Doug Ezell of your city now and a retired Methodist bishop I believe. He reminded us young preacher boys of that day we all had better come down on the side of mercy for the same reasons you listed. Thank God we don’t get what we deserve or we would all be in trouble.


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