Since the day the humble tax collector cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” the faithful in Christ have been doing the same.
There are plenty of reasons to regularly pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But, I’ll limit it to three:
1. It is a practical way to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5.17) How is it possible to pray without ceasing? The Jesus Prayer is the most widespread and effective way to pray constantly. Our need is to draw nearer to God all the time. St. Isaac of Syria says that it is impossible to draw near to God by any means other than increasing prayer.
For many years I struggled in my attempts to commune with God throughout the day. I tried to latch on to a phrase or word that spoke to me during my “devotions” and remember it as a cue to think of God during the day. However, I could easily go through a day without thinking about God. It wasn’t until I began repeating the Jesus Prayer, simple and memorable, that any progress was made. It was not a quick fix; it’s not meant to be. It took many years of practice until the prayer started to take hold and aid my communion with God. I still struggle. Yet, my heart is slowly being transformed by calling on the name of Jesus and asking for His mercy to be present in my sinfulness.
2. It reminds us of our constant need for God’s mercy.
One writer informs us:
When we say, “Lord have mercy,” first of all we confess our need, we confess that we are not self-sufficient, we confess that without Jesus Christ we are missing something vital that only He can provide. We confess our weakness, we confess our deficiency, we confess our helplessness.
Also in the cry of “Lord have mercy” we also confess our trust that Jesus Christ is the One Who can help us, Who can fulfill our deficiencies and Who can make us whole. It would be useless for us to ask for help from someone who was unable to help us…
Notice that the prayer, “Lord have mercy” is wonderfully indefinite. When we use this prayer we not only say that we are needy, but we also say that we don’t know what our need truly is. In calling out to Jesus Christ to “have mercy” we trust that He will know our need even better than we might know it ourselves. When we pray, we do not tell God what to do as though he were a servant or an employee, but we simply put ourselves into His care, trusting that He will know what we need, even better than we do ourselves.
3. It challenges our understanding of mercy. Let’s see if we can discover a fuller meaning of the term.
The Greek word for mercy is eleison of the same root as elaion which means olive tree and the oil from it.
Three implications about the meaning of mercy follow:
1. Healing: In the Middle East, olive oil provides physical healing for many sicknesses, particularly respiratory. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, olive oil is used to soothe and heal.
Thus, to “have mercy” means to have “healing oil” on my soul.
2. Power: For the anointing of kings and priests, olive oil was used symbolizing the grace of God giving them the power to fulfill what is beyond human capabilities.
Thus, to “have mercy” means to have God’s gracious power to do what we could not do otherwise.
“My old age shall be strengthened by your anointing,” writes the Psalmist (92.10). Perhaps he was referring to this reality.
3. Peace: It was an olive branch brought by the dove to Noah indicating that the wrath of God had ceased and there was “peace on earth” again.
Thus, to “have mercy” means to have peace in our heart and life.
One additional aspect of mercy is mentioned in scripture and in peoples’ experience.
Place of God’s Appearing: The mercy seat was the gold lid with two cherubim beaten out of the ends of it to cover and create the space into which God would appear. The mercy seat is where God appears.
A cry for mercy is a cry for God to manifest Himself. (The implications to this aspect of mercy is astounding! Experience it as you ask for mercy.)
I’ve mentioned four aspects of mercy you may never have heard before. They help fill out our understanding and experience of God and His steadfast love. Mercy is rich, abounding, and never-ending. We can wallow in it, body, soul, spirit, and mind.
The Jesus Prayer
Take this understanding of mercy and include the Name of God – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…” and you have a prayer that has power beyond our comprehension.
The Jesus Prayer, like medicine, destroys our passions and alters our conduct. (I’ve actually experienced this.) Here’s one description: “Just as a doctor places a dressing on a patient’s wound and the dressing works without the patient’s knowing how, calling on the Name of God “removes the passions” without our knowing how and why…The Holy Name, when repeated quietly, penetrates the soul rather like a drop of oil, spreading out and impregnating a cloth.”
Ancient writers tell us that “praying the Sacred Name changes our personality, from overstrain to joy. By continuing to pray, these changes become permanent.” I’m counting on it!
The Psalmist writes, “If the Lord had not helped me, my soul would already have dwelt in Sheol. When I said, ‘My foot slips,’ Your mercy, O Lord, came to my help.” (94.18) Psalm 136 illuminates God’s “steadfast love” (mercy) in multiple situations for which thanks can be given.
The classic story of a pilgrim traveling with the Jesus Prayer is captured in the book, The Way of the Pilgrim. A new and helpful version has recently been published by Skylight Paths Publishing. I recommend it.