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Lord, have mercy: The most misunderstood prayer in the Christian West

Central to Orthodox worship are the words "Lord have mercy." Amelia explains why we focus so much on God's mercy, what the words actually mean, and why this prayer isn't nearly as "dark" as many non-Orthodox think it sounds.
Mercy isn't a word you'll hear much in non-Orthodox church circles. You'll hear talk of grace, and love, and blessings, and peace, and redemption, but very few (if any) prayers for mercy.

In many Protestant traditions, the Lord's mercy seems an unnecessary prayer. Once you're in the army of those who believe they're automatically saved by professing a belief in Christ, there doesn't seem much need for mercy. In the Roman Catholic tradition, God's mercy is still something seen as necessary, but the words "Lord, have mercy" have been tweaked into the gentler sounding "Lord, hear our prayer."

Contrast this with what you'll hear in any Orthodox service—Divine Liturgy, vigil, anything—and it quickly becomes evident that "Lord, have mercy" is quite the main idea. Even at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the Lord's mercy is still the number-one priority. In monastic practice, the words Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me are meant to echo in one's heart all the time.

Why so much focus on mercy? To many non-Orthodox, this attitude toward prayer seems to be some type of morbid fixation on sin and Divine punishment. To many Orthodox, it doesn't seem to have real meaning; it's just a phrase that we hear all the time and don't really think about. Based on some conversations I've had to have recently, now is the time to explain why both of those perspectives are missing the big picture.

The biggest problem here is the English language. To most of us, the word mercy means crying "Uncle!" It implies a plea to be saved from impending doom. And, to be literal for a moment, there's an aspect of that that's also relevant in the Christian context; we do need God to save us from eternal death. But that's not all mercy means.

If we look at the root of the word mercy in other languages, specifically the historical languages associated with the Orthodox Church (and Christianity in general), all of which have been around for centuries (or millennia) longer than our modern English, another meaning becomes very clear. When we pray for mercy, what we're really asking is for God to love us.

In old Greek, the word for mercy comes from the word for olive oil, which, since the beginning of time, has been used to soothe the pain of wounds, bruises, and injuries. In Hebrew, the word for mercy means steadfast love. In Church Slavonic, as well as Russian, Serbian, and Romanian, the word for mercy has many related connotations: Tenderness, kindness, sweetness, endearing, compassion, and pity.

In the Orthodox Church, we don't look at sin as an evil deed and God as the presiding judge. Although both of those ideas are very true in the literal sense, there's more to it than that, something much deeper. The way we've always seen things, sin is a sickness and God is the physician. More than anything else, what we turn to Him for is healing.

When we pray for mercy, we're asking God to love us, to soothe our pain, to heal the many illnesses of character that cause it, and to nurture us with holy love in a way that transforms us into better people. And hopefully, the more of this tender kind of mercy we yearn for on this side of the grave, the less of the legalistic kind we'll find ourselves missing on the other.