Empathy In Action


o you remember where you spent Christmas in 1980? I do. As a thoroughly hopeless and broken young man, I was cowering in a Salvation Army shelter for the homeless in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I had lived on the streets for the previous three years due to a crippling addiction
to alcohol. Now, pursued by paramilitary gunmen, I was hiding in the only place in Belfast that would shelter me. I detested Christians, yet the only thing keeping me alive was mercy shown to me by Christians!

You might think their mercy would have prompted some kind of gratitude, but my sinful rebellion was such that it only increased my hatred. I did everything I could to make myself objectionable to those Salvation Army people. I cursed them, spat at them, and blasphemed their Savior. On one particularly dark and chaotic night, I tried to kill the captain who managed that shelter . . . dropping a beer bottle toward him from three floors above. I still wonder if it was intoxication or the grace of God that spoiled my aim and saved me from being guilty of murder.

That Salvation Army captain, a Welshman named George Hardy, consistently responded to me with grace and mercy. His active and continual practice of mercy, in the face of the most extreme provocation, eventually melted my heart in a way no sermon ever could.

    The Gift of Mercy

All Christians must be merciful (Luke 6:36), but not all have the gift of mercy (Rom. 12:8).

The Greek word for mercy is primarily an action word. It occurs most often in the New Testament in connection with Jesus’ healing ministry. It goes way beyond nice feelings, denoting instead the taking of positive action in order to eliminate misery. As Christians, we should all show mercy in active ways, yet God calls some of us to do so in a much greater and more effective manner.

When Pentecostals think of the gifts of the Spirit, mercy is not usually the first to spring to mind. Yet, if we accept the scriptural identification of mercy as a gift of the Spirit, then we should excel in this gift. Pentecostals should be more active and more effective in addressing poverty and injustice than anyone else in the world!

The history of Church of God World Missions provides some stirring examples of the spiritual gift of mercy in action. Think of Margaret Gaines and her steadfast commitment to the Palestinian children of Aboud in the West Bank . . . Fred Garmon and the incredible mercy being displayed through People for Care and Learning in Cambodia . . . and Rick Waldrop’s passionate insistence in Latin America that a commitment to social justice is integral to being truly Pentecostal.

Amazingly, however, we still have a few voices within the Pentecostal ranks that speak disparagingly of involvement in social justice as if it were somehow incompatible with a strong commitment to the Word of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. My own life and ministry, both as a recipient and a giver of mercy, have convinced me of the awesome power of this spiritual gift.

    Becoming Merciful

Two months after I entered the homeless shelter, I found myself kneeling at the front of a church, crying out to Jesus for pardon and salvation.

Two decades later, as overseer of the Church of God in Ireland, I asked myself who the most unloved people in my nation were. That was an easy question to answer. Large-scale immigration into Ireland has included over 10,000 Roma gypsies. Their lifestyle, often characterized by stealing and begging, has made them a target of hatred and abuse. Their reputation is such that it is almost impossible for a member of the Roma community to find a job, and their subsequent reliance on state welfare increases the resentment towards them from the rest of society.

The Church of God in Ireland made a decision to practice unflinching mercy towards this community. It has not been easy. Since 2000, I have found myself in many tense interviews with police and government officials. Yet today we have eight Roma congregations, and over 15 percent of this marginalized community are now members of the Church of God!

I don’t know if I have the spiritual gift of mercy or whether I am simply struggling to manifest the mercy every believer should exercise. I know I fall far short of the extraordinary mercy exemplified in someone like Margaret Gaines. Nevertheless, my experiences with mercy thus far have convinced me that, as a Pentecostal, I want to be part of the most merciful people on earth.