Scripture plainly teaches us that the entire created order is a revelation of God Himself. The world is a book, sometimes called general revelation. But of course the fact that the world is a book does not mean that everyone knows how to read. Mankind is adept at suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, and often refuses to see what nature teaches us about the attributes of God.
Nevertheless the invisible character of God is plainly seen (for those who have eyes to see) through the world around us (Rom. 1:20). But one of the things we see when we as believers look around is the wrath of God, resting on all ungodliness and unrighteousness, those attitudes that suppress the truth (Rom. 1:18). The wrath of God is one of the things revealed in this world, and we are told that when something about God is revealed in the world, the wise can learn something about His eternal power and Godhead. In this case, wrath reveals mercy, as we learn later in the book of Romans.
But before getting to that point, we should lay down the general principle, a foundational principle that I first learned from my father. The principle is this: hard teaching creates tender and soft hearts. Soft teaching creates hard hearts. When the word of God is thundered, the soft rain of grace follows. But when the ministry is so sentimental that they have to ship the treacle in, brought around in fifty gallon drums on trucks, the end result will be hard hearts everywhere, as evidenced by destroyed personal relationships.
Whatever happens in this world “answers to” something in God. God is the author of this story, and the Creator of the world in which the story unfolds. Now we obviously have to guard against quick and glib “assignments” to what “here” answers to God’s eternal nature “there.” The doctrine that the world reveals God’s nature and character is not a doctrine that should be used to make God a screen onto which we project the vain desires of fertile imaginations. For example, the fact that we are created male and female does reveal something about the character of God. As male and female, we constitute His image (Gen. 1:27). But it would be a facile and false step to say, as some barking exegetes do, that the Holy Spirit is God’s “feminine side.” The more specific we get in the assignment of truths gleaned from general revelation, the more we should lean on special revelation protect us. One of the ways we will know we are on the right track is that the results of doing this will consistently surprise us, and yet harmonize nicely with what the Scriptures teach over all.
The world is a screwed up place, and it is filled with people who are really hurting. In this world, the merciful heart is one that will never run out of opportunities. Why is it like this? Why is this world here? This is what philosophy classes call the problem of evil. It is what Christians call a mission field, and a glorious opportunity to show mercy.
A pagan and sentimental view of mercy resents the evil which makes the mercy necessary. A Christian view glories in the wisdom of the God who determined to have the world go in this direction, and in the privilege of being enlisted to fight the resultant evil. It would have been nice never to have had a dragon, but without a dragon we would never had St. George.
Look at how the apostle Paul discusses mercy in the following passage:
“For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:17-24).
In a world without sin and evil, at least two attributes of God would have gone unrevealed and unmanifested, those attritutes being wrath and mercy. Since this is obviously intolerable, God determined to direct our affairs the way that He did. In this passage, mercy is clearly based on sovereign determination from above, and not on an appeal for justice from below. God has mercy on whom He wills, and His will in this matter is not universal, head for head. The fact is that His wrath is not universal, and neither is His mercy, and this sets up the contrast. Against the darkness of deserved wrath we see the brightness of His mercy, and the brightness of His mercy makes sense against the backdrop darkness of what could have happened to all of us.
For the Christian, everything comes back to the gospel.
Without this understanding of mercy, mercy ministries will drift off into errors that are extremely common in our day. A call for mercy gradually turns into demands for social justice, and this breeds a sense of entitlement and resentful envy among the potential recipients of mercy. When mercy is given, gratitude results, and the whole thing has a gospel aroma. When “social justice” is given, resentment breeds more resentment, along with escalating demands, emotional blackmail, and coercion. The irony is that when Christians cooperate with this mentality, or help to foster it, the net effect is an increase in the number of the vessels of wrath, which is not what we wanted.
Even a cup of cold water given in the name of Christ has the potency it does because it is the gospel in microcosm. And because all that we do, great or small, is to be a reflection of this gospel, and part of it, what should the motivation of all mercy ministry be? The motivation of mercy ministry ought to be the transfer of glory. Apart from the mercy of God, we are all vessels of wrath, suitable for smashing. This is one manifestation of God’s glory, albeit a grim one. But though God wants that element in His story, it is not the point of the culminating chapters. The world’s story is a comedy, not a tragedy, and the last chapters are all about mercy. God’s storehouses of glory are infinite, and it is His determination to overflow with this glory in its merciful manifestation, pouring it into vessels of mercy. How long will this process go on? It will continue until every vessel in the house is filled (2 Kings 4:6).