Have Mercy on Us

From the devastation wreaked by recent hurricanes and wildfires to the horrific massacre in Las Vegas to our own deep, personal heartaches, we can understandably feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of such events and at a loss to know how to respond. In the wake of such suffering, what I continually return to is the “mere” prayer “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy on us.”

One may ask, How can prayer be an appropriate or effective response to suffering on this level? The truth is, in times like these, even Christians struggle to find the words, direction, or desire to respond in prayer. Yet, I am reminded of why prayer is, in fact, a powerfully appropriate and tangible response to suffering.

First, prayer opens hearts. For Christians, prayer is more than remembrance, positive thinking, or a moment of silence on another’s behalf. It is talking to God, our Father, who created this world and who passionately loves every single human being. The Scriptures tell us that He is intensely moved when his children suffer and stands in solidarity with every one of them in the midst of their pain: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).

Prayer not only opens our hearts to God’s love but ought also to move, soften, and challenge hearts that have grown hard, cold, and indifferent to the needs of others. As God has been merciful toward us, so we are called to show mercy and comfort to those in need.

Second, prayer is also a powerful outlet for grief, emotional burdens, and honest communication. It is a natural human reaction to lash out in anger or confusion when we are hurting. Prayer is a safe, eternal space for those mourning to pour out raw grief without time limit, fear of judgment, or the need for repression. Grieving takes time and needs space; prayer is space for the brokenhearted.

When I respond to tragedy through prayer, I am comforted by a heavenly Father who knows what it is like to watch his own precious son be killed in an act of selfish hatred. When my natural response is to be paralyzed by anxiety or fear for the safety of my friends and family, in prayer I am reaching out in trust to the One who loves and cares for those dearest to me as his very own.

Third, prayer opens doors. Throughout history, communities of faith have led the way in relief and rescue responses in times of national and international tragedy. Jesus told Peter to give evidence of his devotion, asking him to “feed my sheep” (see John 21:15-17). Mother Teresa was guided to the poor of Calcutta through prayer as countless others have been in the wake of suffering. Prayer not only gives the Christian an outlet for requests; it is an opportunity to seek and receive supernatural guidance, revelation, and wisdom from God Himself. When Christians use prayer in this way, it can be a powerful response to the areas of greatest need in a community.

Fourth, prayer opens minds. Christians believe that prayer brings change, but sometimes it is not in the way we expect. Prayers that start as frantic cries for help or outpourings of raw emotion often turn to confident declarations of trust and focused hope.

In Matthew 6—the most famous prayer—we see this phenomenon at work. As we are invited to ask God, Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts,” so also are we called to forgive others. Jesus teaches us to pray in a way that compels us to love and forgive others in the same way that we want to be loved and forgiven. We are reminded that God, our Father, is personal, loving, and all-powerful. This knowledge invites us to trust that He will “deliver us from evil” when we feel powerless to fight it on our own.

Kyrie Eleison

I mentioned that the “mere” prayer “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy on us” often comes to mind in the midst of suffering and tragedy. I was first introduced to this petition through the Church of England during my studies at Oxford. These words are from one of the oldest responsive prayers of Christian liturgy practiced historically in both Eastern and Western church traditions and they are still used today. The prayer in its original form, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, is derived from the New Testament.[1] It is used in corporate worship as a repeated refrain after petitions are made to the Lord either by a pastor or a member of the congregation leading a time of communal intercessions.

The rhythm of petition and response creates space for the much needed yet often unpracticed communal processing of our shared human existence. Every petition said by the leader is answered with a continual cry for mercy.

What does this cry for mercy signify? How can it help us as we seek to process tragedy and suffering and also support those in need?

“Lord, have mercy” is a cry for deliverance. These are words of desperation. A cry for mercy is a cry for help or deliverance from a burden that is too great to bear. The brutality of mass shootings or bombings shows a lack of regard for human life that is indeed pure evil. How do we fight evil? It is an invisible reality that is powerful yet unpredictable, and often only named in hindsight. The government, first responders, friends, and family can at times predict, contain, legislate, and act against evil. However, it is a reality outside of our natural world that we can never fully fight in our natural capacity alone. As we cry for mercy in the face of pure evil, we recognize our need for power, relief, and compassion from a source more powerful than ourselves.

Uttering Kyrie Eleison is also an act of humility. The prayer is both a statement and a request. Our human need for supernatural deliverance is declared as a request to the Lord. “Lord, have mercy” is a statement of authority. It is a recognition that there is a God; we are not God and only He is powerful enough to answer our request. This prayer for mercy forces us out of our natural self-centeredness and back into alignment with the nature and character of our Creator.

The prayer is likewise a request for forgiveness. Continual surrender to the lordship of someone other than ourselves invites us to a continual need for repentance. The Christian understanding of repentance speaks of a change in thought, a turning of direction. The Christian worldview agrees with the harsh diagnosis that we are all contributors to the evil we encounter in our world. The Bible refers to it as sin. Sin is separation from God. When we choose to define morality, meaning, justice, and truth based on our own feelings and desires, or anything other than our Holy God, we are separated from the eternal and true source of love and goodness. Our sin separates us from God; but we cannot live with the evil that comes from our separation. It is upon this recognition that we cry out “Christ, have mercy.”

Jesus came to restore our relationship with God. He sacrificed his life to deliver us from the burden of our sins. On the cross, he took the just punishment we deserved upon himself so that we could receive the forgiveness and mercy we desperately need. So then we must also ask ourselves, How can we cry for deliverance from the evil happening to us until we cry for mercy and forgiveness for the evil that happens through us?

Finally, Kyrie Eleison is a statement of hope. It is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have the blessed assurance that anyone who believes and receives Christ as Lord will receive mercy. The beauty of the good news of Jesus is that God is constantly demonstrating his love and showing mercy even before we realize our need. The biblical understanding of mercy is always linked to the compassion God has for humanity. He is the God who suffers alongside his children; He is the God of all comfort who comes alongside us in tragedy, and He is the healer and restorer of our souls. When we cry out for mercy on behalf of others, we are asking God to bring supernatural comfort and healing to our broken world.

Biblical scholars offer a beautiful description of mercy to unpack this powerful aspect of the Kyrie eleison prayer:

The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for “Lord, have mercy,” are “Kyrie, eleison,” that is to say, “Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.” Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal, a very Western interpretation, but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.[2]

“Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy on us” is a prayer that signifies our need for deliverance, forgiveness, and healing that comes from Christ alone. It is a prayer that moves us from self-centered to God-centered living and offers hope and healing to our hearts and our broken world.

How can we respond when we feel overwhelmed by the things of this world? Might we find hope and comfort in prayer, for it is a humble recognition that we are all in need of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and rescue. The more we are faced with that reality, the more we are filled with the gentleness and respect we desperately need in order to pour out love on all, regardless of what they believe, how they respond, or how vast our differences may seem. Prayer empowers us to love well, give grace, and to continually see the best, pushing us out from ourselves to the needs of others.

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy on us all.

Michelle Tepper is a member of the speaking and writing team at RZIM.

[1] See, for instance, among others, Matthew 15:22 and 20:30-31; Mark 10:46, and Luke 18:39.

[2] Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall, Orthodox Worship, A Living Continuity With the Temple, the Synagogue and the Early Church (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co.,1990), quoted in Anthony M. Coniaris, “Kyrie Eleison, Lord Have Mercy,” online at https://www.goarch.org/-/kyrie-eleison-lord-have-mercy.

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