What is the difference between grace and mercy? In a culture that seems to be growingly distanced from the very ideas of grace and mercy, it often seems that churches themselves do not know how to define the terms. “Grace” strangely enough is often concocted as a response of God to some meritorious activity or character, but this by definition is no longer grace if there’s some reason for it.
Additionally, and I find this more common, there are many who espouse views of grace that can be forfeited; this, too, is not a grace concept, for if it can be gained by personal merit or lost by demerit, it is not grace, but rather law.
Both mercy and grace are best understood in relationship to the Giver and the not the receiver or recipients. The casual theology that is most common out there today is far more reflective of subjective thinking rather than objective understanding. We can only come to grips with His treatment of us on the basis of who He is, not who we are. Nevertheless, if we pay attention to songs and popular books and such in the Christian world, we will find that what is popular often correlates with subjective views of God based on feelings, perceptions and the like.
Most of the book of Jonah would probably be better summed up in the “mercy” category than the “grace” category. There are some simple ways that we might define each concept and draw a distinction between the two, which I will attempt to do here. As it comes to mercy and grace, we might simplify mercy in this way: mercy is God not giving us what we deserve. Conversely, grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve.
We might consider then that Hell, as Scripture would define it, is a place of the reserved wrath of God in relationship to the sinfulness of Satan, fallen angels, and sinful humans who are not under the covering of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross (for failure to place their faith in Christ). Heaven, likewise, is the dwelling foremost of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the angels who have retained their loyalty, and those covered by faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross (currently and future tense for those yet to enter).
It is mercy that withholds a person from going to Hell, but the Bible never gives us any time of a person being in limbo between the two (despite the Catholic teachings of purgatory, which is not consistent with biblical teaching). It is grace that transfers a person’s eternal destination beyond a removal from Hell by an eternal admission into Heaven.
Mercy is found within all of those things that ought to happen to us but are withheld, whereas grace is tied to the blessings that we ought not have access to that God many times over chooses to shower upon us. Both mercy and grace often tend to be limited in perspective by people in how they perceive the transmission of either, but at the core, anything that God does to withhold what ought to be falls into the category of mercy, and anything God does to provide for us what we could not earn is grace. In other words, mercy is preventative, while grace is provisional.
Now, all of that being said, which do you think appears in Jonah 4:6: grace or mercy? Look again at verse 6: “And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.” Before reading further, you might cast your vote.
Here’s some thoughts to ponder before answering: Did Jonah deserve the plant that God provided for shade? Did he do anything to deserve that plant? Did Jonah deserve the pleasure of the shade that the plant offered?
Now, verse 6 is really showing us (drum roll) …. grace. It’s grace, because it was a gift freely given, not earned, but bestowed nonetheless. What’s interesting about the passage, though, is that isn’t really meant to highlight grace as much as it is mercy. How is that? Because God says in v. 9 that Jonah’s anger was “about the plant,” and in v. 10 says “You have had pity on the plant…” Pity is often also described by the word compassion and the measures that one takes when they feel moved for the plight of someone else. Compassion is meant both to alleviate pain as well as to prevent further pain from happening, so we might say that both grace and mercy can touch upon the concept of compassion. (You know, there’s times when I write these devotionals and ask myself, “What did I get myself into?” 🙂 )
What is Jonah upset about, according to the wording? It isn’t that he lost the shade, but that the plant got damaged by a worm and died. He was upset that it perished when it provided such a value to a weary traveler such as himself. He knew the value, but others didn’t and never would. It provided something that Jonah wanted; think about Jesus in the New Testament with the fig tree, when He reaches for some fruit and finds none, in which He curses the tree and what happens to it? It withers! You can read it here in Matthew 21:18-22. Perhaps there’s some parallel to be made between the two passages; mull it over.
God rebuked Jonah for his pity on a plant over which he had “not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night.” The plant was an illustration of Nineveh, a place that God had labored over in working in the people’s hearts, a group which would have been destroyed had He not shown them mercy. A similar passage can be found in John 4:35-38 where Jesus speaks to His disciples in regards to the Samaritan people of Sychar:
“Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.”
Jonah’s value system was out of sorts, and he had grown to have pity on a plant but still had none for humans that he’d written off. Even when the Ninevites recognized their sin and cried to God, all he could do was leave the city and watch to see what would happen to them. He obeyed God’s directive eventually, but he did not care about the people to whom he preached. His anger over the plant’s destruction was so great that he wanted to die, and that would have been both selfish and foolish.
Verse 11, after God reveals Jonah’s pity on a plant that God had brought up Himself, now relates the illustration’s purpose: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left– and much livestock?” If it was right for Jonah to be moved over the withering of a plant that a day before did not exist, how was it not right for God to pity the people who had turned from their sins? How was it not right for Him to show them mercy? The discerning of the right hand from the left, by the way, is referring to children (or those who are mentally incapable of very simple discernment). For children, namely babies and young infants, to discern their right hand from their left was really an impossibility; they lacked the faculties to do so. Both those young children and all of the animals had done absolutely nothing towards Jonah or Israel, but Jonah was just as happy to see them all burn. He hadn’t even completely registered the nature of his desires, and that’s what God is highlighting.
There are certainly passages in the Old Testament where God calls for the complete eradication of all people and animals who were enemies of Israel. 1 Samuel 15:2-3 says, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: `I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. `Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”
Think of that, in light of a Holy God, as a sweeping justice. It’s so contrary to the pity God shows Nineveh in the book of Jonah. The sweeping justice for sin is what all humans should incur, but it’s the grace and mercy of God that prevent that from being everyone’s story. The Ninevites, like you and me, were people outside of God’s covenant promises. They did not seek Him; they worshipped false deities. They sinned grossly and they defied God personally. Nonetheless, God had pity on them, which was His sovereign right. It is His right to show mercy and grace or to withhold them and pour out His wrath and justice: He’s God. It’s true for our lives as well: He can let things happen to us, stop them from happening to us, give us incredible blessings or choose not to, and He’s right to do whatever He does.
It is clear that the book of Jonah is driving deeply into the message of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, isn’t it? It is a message of both grace and mercy. It is undeserved, unmerited, and unequal in its offer of pardon and eternal blessing in the presence of God in Heaven forever. It is a message of the compassion of God as He looks at people like us, sends someone to preach the word to us, and grants us both freedom from Hell and the promise of Heaven by responding in faith to His word. Only sin would make us turn down such a glorious offer, but it is an offer that stands while the Lord tarries. It is a privilege to believe it, to proclaim it, to rehearse it, to teach it, to be reminded of it, and to hear it, period. Let us not grow lackluster in our captivation with the message of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ came and died for sinners, the perfect Son of God dying on the cross as a perfect Sacrifice for our sin, removing the wrath of God and crediting us with His righteousness as we believe on Him by faith. We are trusting in the sufficiency of His death and resting in the promises of God to those who believe.
The Gospel is beautiful and strong, powerful and true. I love it and I hope you do, too. There are many “hills to die on” in this life, but I can’t think of any that are as precious in the sight of God as simply standing for the furtherance of the message of life. We can preach it to kids, to teens, to adults, to people who are happy and healthy as well as people who are frail and on their deathbeds. It bypasses all language barriers, cultures, and distances. It is color-blind and available freely and fully to every person hearing it.