At camp, I would always use this illustration to explain to the kids the definition of grace and mercy:

“Imagine someone’s driving down the highway at 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, and they get pulled over by a cop. Do they deserve to get a ticket?”

I’d get a chorus of yes‘s and maybe a rebellious no.

“What if they were just going 5 miles over the speed limit? Would they deserve a ticket then?”

There would be more no‘s this time, but eventually they’d get it.

“Of course they would, because they’re still breaking the law. Now, imagine the cop comes up to their window and says, ‘I have to give you a ticket right now, but here’s a check. I’m paying it for you.’ That’s mercy.”

“Now, imagine someone’s driving down the highway over the speed limit, and they get pulled over by the cop, but this time when the cop comes up to the window, he says, “I’m paying your ticket for you.’ THEN he reaches into his wallet, pulls out a $100 bill and hands it to them. Then he says, ‘Wait a second,’ and goes back to his car, then comes back with a cooler full of Mountain Dews and puts it in the person’s backseat. That’s grace.”

Understanding would flicker in the kids’ eyes at this point (the Mountain Dew effect was especially powerful in the sweltering July heat) and they’d say, “Ohhhh, I get it.” Then I could go on to say, “Mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve, but grace is when we get what we don’t deserve.” But they wouldn’t have gotten it if I’d just mumbled that off the bat.

Mercy and grace are simple enough to understand, but we often make them so abstract that we can’t get our hands around them to really see what they look like underneath our actions. The thing is, we have to recognize God’s mercy toward us before we are really able to be merciful to anyone else. Like so many things with our outrageously gracious Father, His mercy is the why and the how behind our mercy.

So that’s where we must start. His mercy. It’s in every molecule of the atmosphere we breathe, every cell of our lungs as they expand. God could tap their chemical makeup over by just a smidge at any moment and the breath would stop– and it’d be right and just and even good. Because we deserve to stop. Because we can’t stop. And we won’t stop. We think this is our house and our rules. We think we own things, run things. We think we don’t have to take nothing from nobody, when really– every breathe we take is from God. And Miley might be a confused, but she’s right about this– only God can judge us.

But what an audacious judge he is. Being just enough to punish us rightly, but gracious and loving and good and wild enough to take the punishment himself, in our place. What judge does that? I’ve only stood before a judge once, and she didn’t offer to pay my fine. That’s ridiculous.

We’re literally at the mercy of God’s mercy. We should see it in everything– every breath, every close call, every morning, every time we think of what He did for us. And when we see it, what can we do but turn around and put it on display in our own lives?

I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.

Mercy is messy. It doesn’t play by the rules (you know– the ones we and Miley think we have the right to make). It doesn’t always work out like we think it will. It doesn’t always change things in a way we can see. It doesn’t always make us feel warm and bubbly inside. It isn’t even always received.

But, man, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful when we find someone who is suffocating from stress or oppression or sorrow and give them an oxygen mask to help them breathe. When we take God’s mercy and help those who are struggling the most to find it get a full, life-renewing taste. But it’s also beautiful even if God is the only one who sees us crack the door to let some fresh air into a carbon monoxide-filled garage.

Mercy doesn’t always look the same. And the lines between it and grace aren’t as clearly defined as we often think. It could come in the form of forgiveness. Or going out of the way to help someone. Or battling an injustice– small or gigantic in scale. The kid standing up for the bullied kid on the playground is showing mercy just as the non-profit rescuing hundreds of girls from brothels is showing mercy. Mercy can be rigorously planned or spontaneously in the moment. It can be just enough to cover the cost or lavish and spilling over with grace. In reality, our mercy should be as wild and unpredictable as God’s.