- …And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others (ἐλεάω/eleaō), do it gladly (ἱλαρότης/hilarotēs, Rom 12:8)
Nature of the Gift
For ἐλεάω/eleaō, the New Living Translation has “showing kindness,” but most translations have “showing mercy.”1KJV, NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB, NJB, cf. “the compassionate,” NRSV. This can refer to the emotion roused by affliction; however, it’s more than that. It speaks of sympathizers who do something about suffering and misfortune when they see it. In the LXX, ἐλεάω/eleaō was closely associated with God’s own compassion and grace; indeed, God’s mercy precedes man’s (Matt 18:33).
Like faith, mercy is something that God requires of all believers (Matt 9:13; 12:7; quoting Hos 6:6). In fact, reciprocity governs how mercy is distributed (Matt 5:7): Since we have all received mercy, we should show it to others (Rom 11:30–32; Col 3:12). For example, Paul had been “a blasphemer and persecutor, and an arrogant man,” but God had showed him mercy (1 Tim 1:13–16). Paul didn’t treat this as just his personal testimony, but he rooted it in redemptive history, which brought salvation to all by grace alone.2Paul puts mercy in the context of salvation history (Rom 9, 11, and 15); mercy is God’s eschatological act in Jesus Christ (Titus 3:5).
This had been a long-standing promise3Exod 20:6; Pss 31:19; 103:17ff.; now we have received it in Christ Jesus. God, who is rich in mercy (Eph 2:4), gives and withholds mercy according to his sovereign counsel.4Rom 9:15ff.; quoting Exod 33:19 That sovereign distribution means bounty not lack; it means he freely distributes it, even to the unworthy (Rom 11:30ff), rather than hoarding it only for the so-called worthy. Freely you have received, freely give (Matt 10:8). So, in an important sense, everyone who is in Christ Jesus has been given the gift of mercy.
Sovereign distribution means bounty not lack; but like faith, mercy can also be a special gift sovereignly distributed to some. So by implication, not given to all in that same degree. God gives a special compassion to some, a special empathy, an especially kind heart. And then God empowers that empathy so that what results isn’t just psychological torment at all the suffering you can see more clearly than others, but a healing response.
Exercising the Gift
How should someone with this gift exercise it?
First, we have the Bible’s own counsel. Where Paul lists it as a special gift, he prescribes a cheerful attitude towards the display of mercy. For goodness sake, don’t draw the frivolous conclusion that just because the Greek for “gladly” is ἱλαρότης/hilarotēs it means “hilarious.” I’ve actually heard of places where someone has advised congregations that they should all laugh hilariously while they collect the offering. And Jesus’s command is that it should be done without show or display (Matt 6:2–4).5Exod 20:6; Pss 31:19; 103:17ff. So this isn’t a gift that gives you a platform for parading how self-sacrificing you are; it isn’t a melancholy penchant for giving up so much for the unfortunate.
With Spiritual Guidance
Second, we can rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us; after all, it’s a spiritual gift. Just as one speaks in tongues as the Spirit gives utterances, so too one displays and distributes mercy as the Spirit prods and provides. But I doubt if that means you’re supposed to wait for a direct revelation from God before you act with mercy toward someone; we should all show bountiful mercy. It’s just that someone who has this gift is more likely to sense a divine prompting than just a human emotion, a mandate from God rather than just an innately compassionate response to someone’s misfortune or folly. And in that divine prompt there is the potential for ministry that goes beyond mere humanitarian relief to genuinely spiritual succor.
New Testamant Connections
Third, it will pay to see the connections that the Scriptures itself make with showing mercy.
The Gospels closely connect the call for mercy with requests for Jesus to heal.6Matt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30–31; Mark 10:47–48; Luke 16:24; 17:13; 18:38–39. So perhaps the one who has the gift of mercy ought to seek earnestly the gift of healing, just as one who has the gift of speaking in tongues wants the gift of interpretation (1 Cor 14:13). Or, following that same principle, the one who has the gift of healing might seek the gift of motivating mercy.
Jude connects the display of mercy with edifying, sanctifying, restoring love:
But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, and await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life. In this way, you will keep yourself safe in God’s love. And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives. (Jude 20–23)
This indicates that the one who has the gift of mercy might get involved with efforts to restore a congregation’s wandering sheep (Jas 5:19–20); that’s certainly a spiritual work (Gal 6:1). By contrast, note how God rebuked Israel’s false shepherds for failure in this regard (Ezek 34:4). And anyone whose position put them in the role of implementing programs of restoration should pray for this gift. And of course, the gift of mercy would always be a useful gift for anyone involved in the church’s diaconal ministries.
With Common Sense
Finally, we might even turn to sanctified common sense. Where you see someone in need, show the mercy of helping them get financial help. Where you see someone suffering alone, come alongside them in burden-bearing companionship. Where you see someone doubting and drifting, refuse the attack mode of discipline in favor of friendship and fellowship. And where you yourself suffer under the lash of harsh and unfair attacks, forgive those who do it—seventy times seven times.7Matt 18:22; Luke 17:4 That would be 490 times; by then, you’ve probably lost track—and who’s really counting anyway? “Blessed are those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7).