If you’ve been to church at some point in your life, you have heard the words, “mercy and grace.” For years I thought they were sort of the same thing. And it seemed that often speakers I would hear would likewise think they were the same, interchanging one word for the other.
But a few years ago, I heard a simple (I like simple.) explanation of the two words and their subtle differences. Simply, mercy is not getting what you deserve, while grace is getting something you don’t deserve. Maybe a couple of personal examples from years ago will better explain.
Let’s start with mercy, not getting what you deserve. I think I was around a Freshman back at Clement High School. A few of us guys were hanging around in the gym. I’m not certain what was going on. As we were horsing around, one of my buddies, dared me to see how heavy the fire extinguisher was that was hanging on a post near the gym floor. Once dared, you always had to respond, no matter how stupid the dare may have seemed. So I pushed up hard on the long canister fire extinguisher, thinking that it must be heavy.
It was not. The fire extinguisher came flying out of the rack that was holding it and fell sharply to the floor. That was bad. What followed was worse. The jolt of it hitting the floor caused the foam to start pouring out of the fire extinguisher. The foam was going everywhere. Of course, my friends, being true friends, were laughing and offered no help at all. I grabbed the extinguisher and tried to turn it off, but I couldn’t. The foam was pouring out of the nozzle. I turned around with the extinguisher and with the nozzle in my hand, not realizing that someone was coming up to try to help me. As I turned around, the foam coming out of the fire extinguisher sprayed on that person, and got the foam on his jacket. That person was Mr. Gillis, the principal.
Yes, I had just sprayed the principal with fire extinguisher foam. I was in trouble. I may not have meant to, but I was in trouble. Not only had I made a mess with the fire extinguisher, (I cleaned it up the best I could.) but I had ruined Mr. Gillis’ jacket. Obviously, my parents were not thrilled when I told them. I knew I would have to pay whatever the cost of the jacket out of my own pocket.
After a night of little sleep, I went the next day to the principal’s office to meet with Mr. Gillis. He told me he knew I didn’t mean to do it, but that I should have known better. Then he told me not to worry about his jacket, that it was old and he needed a new one. I deserved to at least pay for his jacket. He showed me mercy that day, and I have never forgotten.
Now a simple example of grace, getting more than I deserve. As a kid, when we were barning tobacco during the summer, all the workers would get a soft drink in the morning at break time. But often I would get more. As I was driving a tractor load of tobacco back to the barn from the field, Daddy would sometime stop his truck to give me a carton of milk and a honey bun. I would quickly finish them off before I got to the barn so no one else could see it. I got more than I deserved. And I have never forgotten that grace from my father. That didn’t mean I didn’t have to work hard, or that I didn’t ever get punished for misbehaving. But those years, my father many times showed me grace, getting more than I deserved, and mercy, not getting what I deserved.
The grace and mercy you may hear from a pulpit also refers to a father, our heavenly Father. We all, in our own way, have rebelled against God. It is called sin. The punishment for sin is death. But God has shown us mercy and has removed the penalty from us, through the death of Jesus Christ. And by accepting his death on the cross, we can also receive grace and the blessings of salvation and a life lived in his presence.
When folks call into money manager Dave Ramsey’s radio program, they will often ask how he is doing. His response is almost always, “Better than I deserve.” We who have accepted the gift of salvation probably should use the same response when asked. We’re not getting what our sinful actions say we should deserve. And we’re getting blessings from God that we have done little to deserve. It’s mercy and grace. And I’m much better than I deserve because of it.
Reach Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.