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What It Really Means to Pray ‘Lord Have Mercy’

It’s a phrase we sometimes use without thinking. But it’s a prayer with deep and wide meaning.

Lord Have Mercy
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I pray “Lord Have Mercy” a lot. Many people do. Some pray it only in church, others say it only in desperate times. Still others repeat it often in the course of a day. I’m in the last category.  

Jesus told the story of a tax collector and a Pharisee who went into the temple to pray. The Pharisee—an upstanding citizen and religious leader—preened and pontificated in his prayer, while the tax collector confessed his sinfulness and asked for forgiveness, saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—and thus “went home justified before God” (Luke 18:13, 14, NIV).

Truth be told, sometimes we use the phrase, “Lord, have mercy,” without thinking. It can become a one-size-fits-all sort of prayer, adaptable to many situations. Yet it is a prayer that is rich in meaning. It says: 

I’m in need.
The prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” is a confession of need—either my own need or someone else’s need. I may pray it as a confession of sin, but I may also say those words to acknowledge that I lack the resources to meet my own need. And, often, I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” for someone else, sometimes without knowing their specific need, as a way of asking God to turn His attention toward a hurting or helpless person.  

God is there.
Obviously, any prayer—if it’s sincere—reflects an awareness (or hope) that God is there, and He is listening. Otherwise, why pray anything? But “Lord, have mercy,” when offered in faith, is an affirmation not only of God’s existence but also of His proximity. He is there, He is near, and He is listening. 

God’s merciful action can change things.
Like blind Bartimaeus, who sat begging by the Jericho roadside as Jesus approached, we cry out, “Lord, have mercy,” because we believe that the Lord shows mercy, granting favor to those who deserve none, and when He does, things change—lives change. The blind are healed. The burdened are relieved. Sinners go home “justified before God” (Luke 18:14, NIV). 

I will show mercy.
Jesus told another parable about a ruler and one of his officials. The official owed a large debt, but the ruler forgave the debt, wiping his slate clean. But then the official refused to show mercy to another man, who owed him—making the ruler angry and bringing punishment on the official (Matthew 18:23-35). Because mercy should beget mercy. When I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” I should remember that God’s kindness to me should make me kind to others.

“Lord, have mercy” is a prayer for all seasons and all reasons, but it’s also a prayer with deep and wide meaning. Pray it often, for yourself and for others, and let “Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance” (Jude 2, NIV). 

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