One of the most common questions asked of Orthodox Christians is, “Why the repetition of ‘Lord have mercy?’ Isn’t that vain repetition? Don’t you trust in the mercy of God?” This question comes from a range of people, from the uneducated to even the scholar. I will seek to answer these questions by clarifying what vain repetition means, and then talk about what mercy means.
First, to address the question of repetition, one must first understand that Christ takes no issue with repetition generally. The issue is specifically repetition that is vain (Mat 6:7). Vain repetition is simply when the mouth runs ahead of the heart. However, the apparent ‘discovery’ of repetition is vocalized by Christians who are just as guilty of repetition. Any liturgy repeats something on a weekly basis. We repeatedly pray for our loved ones to be healed of their sickness. We repeatedly pray for peace in the world. Yet, for some reason, it is perceived as vain to repeat a prayer multiple times in one service.
We know repetition is not inherently vain for multiple reasons, one of which is the following passage:
“And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.” (Mark 10:46-48)
Notice how the blind Bartimaeus repeats his plea for mercy. Does this mean he lacks faith in the mercy of Christ by his repetition? On the contrary, persistent prayer indicates one has a strong working knowledge that God is merciful. The one with strong faith is one who, like the persistent widow, “always prays, and without fainting” (Luke 18:1). It is the absence of prayer that reveals the absence of faith, not the presence of prayer.
This leads to the question, “What is mercy?” What exactly do we mean when we ask for mercy? Mercy does not have punitive connotations of God deciding not to throw down some fireballs on people who deserve it. Mercy is not about God relenting, it is about God bringing compassionate aid and comfort to those who are afflicted. We implore God to reveal to the world the compassion we already know He has.
This can take multiple forms. Aside from Bartimaeus invoking the compassion of Christ for healing, mercy is also found in the Our Father. The prayer states:
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The language here is misleading in light of other places in scripture. For example, Christ was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mat 4:1), and yet St James says God tempts no man (Jas 1:13). Therefore, the “lead us not into temptation” does not mean that we are praying to avoid temptation. The meaning is clarified by the conjunction “but deliver us from evil.”
When we pray this prayer, we are imploring God to give us the strength to endure the temptation to succumb to evil. As St James says, “Count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations,” he is echoing our Lord who said, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven…” (Mat 5:11-12a). It is as Job declares, “When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). This is why many martyrs battled their executioners (who persistently tempt them to deny their Lord) by repeating, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Through their calling upon the name of the Lord, they are delivered from evil’s temptation (Joel 2:32, Rom 10:13).
So the next time you hear, “Lord have mercy,” know that it is because we know God is merciful, and we want Him to show the world how awesome He is though His great and rich mercy.