What is the definition of mercy?

Mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress, especially when it is within one’s power to punish or harm them.

The word “mercy” derives from the medieval Latin merced or merces, which means "price paid." It has the connotation of forgiveness, benevolence and kindness. Mercy is often used in a religious context of giving alms, caring for the sick or the poor.

In the legal sense, mercy often refers to compassionate behavior from a person in power, such as when a judge shows clemency, leniency or mercy during sentencing.

What is the biblical definition of mercy?

Mercy appears in the Bible as it relates to forgiveness or withholding punishment. For example, God the Father showed mercy on us when he sacrificed his son, Christ Jesus, on the Cross to pay the price for our sins.

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions." — Psalm 51:1, NIV
A young girl with her arms stretched out

But the Bible also defines mercy beyond forgiveness and withholding punishment. God shows his mercy for those who are suffering through healing, comfort, the alleviation of suffering and caring about those in distress. He acts from compassion and acts with mercy.

In Matthew 17:15, a man approaches Jesus and kneels before Him saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son. … He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water."

Jesus' response, to heal the man's son, is one of mercy. Jesus’ compassion prompts him to act and he mercifully loves, heals and restores.

How is mercy different from compassion?

Mercy and compassion are intertwined. Mercy is the fruit of compassion. Mercy is a gift given to someone who is suffering by someone acting with compassion.

According to the dictionary, mercy is a noun. It's a mission performed to relieve suffering. It's an event to be grateful for. It's the compassion or forgiveness shown to someone. But mercy is a noun in action.

The meaning of compassion is to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion is more than feeling concerned about someone in distress or caring about a person's misfortune. There is action associated with compassion, and that action is mercy.

When compassion acts to alleviate suffering, it becomes mercy.

What does it mean to have mercy?

The idea of having mercy emphasizes the aspect of mercy concerning disparity in power, as opposed to emphasizing the motivation for having mercy (e.g., compassion or lenity). It doesn't exclude kindness. It simply draws attention to the relationship between having the choice to show mercy and strictly executing justice.

Having mercy or being merciful speaks of leniency, forbearance and clemency more so than grace, forgiveness, tenderness or compassion.

A boy leaning on his mother

What does mercy mean or look like?

Mercy doesn't always involve grand moments or gestures. But it always treats the position of influence, authority or power it acts from gently. Mercy makes room for others.

Sometimes mercy means choosing not to complain to the restaurant manager when the service you received was lacking. That is the mercy of kindness.

Sometimes mercy means not making it difficult for the person who offended you to apologize. That is the mercy of forgiveness.

Sometimes mercy means correcting someone gently and not acting smug or vindictive. That is the mercy of grace.

Sometimes mercy means helping a child escape poverty. That is the mercy of compassion.

How does Compassion International show mercy?

Every day, millions of children living in poverty around the world find comfort in God's mercy as they participate in our Child Sponsorship Program. Thousands of local churches in low- and middle-income countries tailor our holistic child development model to the contextualized needs of the children in their communities. Doing so enables these churches to best deliver the help and care the children most need to alleviate the suffering of living in extreme poverty

Showing God's mercy and love to the poor means each child assisted by our frontline church partners receives care that is personal, individualized, relational and tailored to the child's age, gender, health, culture and family situation. It also means the children have opportunities to grow and develop physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. The benefits of our Child Sponsorship Program include:

Rev. Everett Swanson holding a Korean orphan
  • Better health
  • Better nutrition
  • Educational and vocational support for a brighter future
  • Safety and protection
  • Socioemotional development
  • The opportunity to hear the gospel and learn about Jesus

More than 65 years ago, our founder, Rev. Everett Swanson, ministered to American troops fighting in the Korean War. He was increasingly troubled by the orphans he saw living on the streets, abandoned by society. His response was the definition of mercy.

Moved by compassion, he responded with mercy and used his influence and position to care for the children.

Rev. Swanson did not turn his back on the suffering he saw. And today, you can be mercy in a hurting world as well.

Live out the true mercy definition. Sponsor a child today!

When you sponsor a child through Compassion International, you show mercy to a child in need in a tangible way. Your sponsored child will know the meaning of mercy through the care you help provide —nutritious meals and supplements, safe drinking water, improved sanitation, tutoring and mentoring, tuition assistance, hygiene training, regular health checkups, vaccinations and medicine, emergency medical care, life skills training and an opportunity to hear about Jesus.

Sponsoring a child allows you to experience and share the meaning of mercy through your prayers, letters and financial support.

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