You cannot make it without God’s mercy.
Do we just need God’s grace in dark and shameful moments? Are prayers for mercy only for those times when we really mess up? Jonathan Parnell says we need God’s mercy all the time. In fact, contrary to many church cultures, Parnell shows that asking God for mercy should be as regular as asking God for our daily bread.
There’s no doubt that David was in a terrible predicament when he first prayed the words of Psalm 51. It was a dark and shameful moment in the Bible, and one so dark and shameful it seldom feels relevant to us today. But David’s most desperate prayer is really a prayer for all of us—and not just for our worst moments, but for our every moment. In these pages, you’ll discover:
– how to pray a daily, memorable prayer derived from Psalm 51.
– how to practice daily repentance and soul care.
– how to pursue God and experience his joy in the Christian life.
This is God’s mercy, and it’s Mercy for Today.
What prompted you to write Mercy for Today?
In short, this book is an extension of a personal practice I’ve observed now for several years, and which I first commended to the local church I pastor. Because of its fruitfulness in my life and others’, I was excited to share this practice with readers who might also be helped by it.
As the story goes, several years ago I ran across a short Psalm reading in The Book of Common Prayer. The reading included only four petitions from Psalm 51, composed in a peculiar order (beginning with verse 15, then verses 10–12). I began to pray these petitions every morning, and each time they continued to give me clarity and perspective as I entered the day. So I have just never stopped praying them. It is still the first thing I do, like I did this morning: Psalm 51:15, 10, 11, and 12.
Part of the prayer’s influence on me occurred by way of its surprise. You could say I have a history with Psalm 51. Growing up in the church, I was well aware of the events surrounding David’s repentance. Psalm 51 was a psalm I never wanted to need – because wouldn’t that mean that my sin was as bad as David’s? The psalm seemed scandalous to me. I really didn’t want anything to do with it, but I still knew it was there, just in case.
So all those years later, when I read the psalm afresh, in the peculiar order of verse 15, verse 10, verse 11, and verse 12, I was overcome by the mercy of God. I was very much not like David, and I was also very much like him. The mercy of God is my only hope. And that is the real theme of Psalm 51. The mercy of God!
In a sense, this book feels like an ode to God’s mercy, with some life-application mixed in.
Who did you write it for?
I wrote Mercy for Today for people who need God’s mercy today. I had Christians in mind when I was at my keyboard, but hopefully it’s something any reader can understand. Whether you’re a new Christian or an experienced leader in your local church, I expect this little book to resonate with you … because if there is one thing we all have in common, isn’t it the mercy of God?
How do you hope readers are changed after reading it?
Each petition in this four-petition prayer relates to key themes essential to the Christian life: praise, change, presence, and joy. I have a theology for each of these themes that more or less comes through, especially if you’re looking for it (perhaps in the future when my kids are all grown I will write a bigger book that double clicks on those theological undercurrents, because they’re important). For this book, I’m dealing mainly with the practice, but I still hope the theology has a shaping effect. I care about how my readers think about God. And would that God lead us to think rightly!
So that’s the first change. For whatever ways the readers might see God wrongly, I hope this book gives them a fresh and true vision of him.
The second change is that I want the people who read this book to live in freedom. I want them to learn how to live in freedom — something that can’t happen apart from the mercy of God. And I mean mercy in our moments, not mercy way back then, not mercy once upon a time. I want us to live in the mercy of God that is new today.
How does Psalm 51 help us practice daily repentance, pursue God, and experience his joy?
That is a great question! It should be on the back cover! It is what the book is all about.
I think the key here is daily repentance. Martin Luther famously began his Ninety-Five Theses: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” What is a life of repentance?
Now, not a few people have taken up that question, but we know most fundamentally it must include faith in the mercy of God. Simply put, you cannot repent if God is not merciful. Repentance, in a sense, is putting that faith into action. Consider how David begins in Psalm 51. His opening line goes: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” Do you see it? David’s petition for mercy was anchored in what he believed about God’s steadfast love. And what he believed about God’s steadfast love —what he knew to be true — is what compelled him to ask for mercy (i.e., repent).
Pursuing God is always an act of repentance because you’re turning from the broken cisterns that will not satisfy. You are admitting your need. You are running to your refuge who will only be your refuge because of his mercy.
And do you know what’s in the air there? In that turning, that pursuing, that refuge? It’s joy. And I’m not trying to over spiritualize this. I am talking about joy like how kids feel on Christmas morning, or how you feel when your team wins Game 7 of the World Series. I mean real, palpable joy. It’s something we’ve all tasted, but often feels lacking in our relationship with God. Well, David straight up asks for it in Psalm 51. And I think we should, too.
How has your personal prayer life changed because of the practices you recommend in this book?
The biggest change is clarity. This means shorter prayers much of the time. I hope that is okay. What I mean is, sometimes in prayer we can spin our wheels. We might start bringing this one thing to God that then sends us down this road of other thoughts — and after five minutes or so you realize that you’re not actually praying at all, but you’re just building a mental to-do list of things you forgot to do the day before. Who wants to spend 20 minutes on their face in prayer when 18 minutes of it was thinking about how that email might have come off? I’ve tried to tell myself that at least I am bringing these thoughts “before the Lord,” but I’m really just chewing on anxious bread. Well, I don’t really do that anymore.
Instead, it’s really simple — or it’s mainly simple — this Christian life. I want to get in on God’s praise, because that’s what it’s all about. So let me praise you, God. And as for me, I need to be changed from the inside out. I’m not there yet. “He’s still working on me.” So I am going to take personal responsibility: Change me, God. And now I know, I can’t do any of this without God’s help. I need him close to me. Near me. Indeed, his nearness is my good. So, please, don’t leave me, God. And, overall, when it’s all said and done, when I walk out of my study and pour seven bowls of cereal for my kids, I want to have joy. I want to be glad in God. Give me joy again, God. And then again and again and again. And then when it really is all said and done, because I have either died or Jesus has come back, it will be lasting joy — unassailable, irreversible joy, forever.
Why is David’s prayer in Psalm 51 a prayer for every day? Not just for our worst moments, but for our every moment?
One troubling aspect of being human is that we don’t know the future. We are always one unforeseen moment away from pain. I think that’s one reason we find joy so difficult. For what it’s worth, I think Brene Brown nails this point. She has said that joy is our most vulnerable emotion, and that’s why I think it’s the most elusive.
In the experience of joy in this life, we always know that pain is still possible. The truest bliss lets down our defenses, and while we might indulge it for a minute — laughter with our children, a spoon full of Ben and Jerry’s Tonight Dough, that World Series win — we know that it can’t last. Not in this world. So we typically batten down the hatches before we’ve really let the joy sink in. The joy is too scary — because we know it probably won’t last. That’s why we get all dignified and regulate our expressions. Don’t laugh too hard with your children because they might die tomorrow. Don’t enjoy that ice cream because those calories are actually bad for you. Stop jumping up and down about the World Series because it’s just a game.
We start down the path of joy and the sirens start sounding, the red lights blinking. It’s dangerous territory, man, and you’d better course-correct before your heart gets shattered.
Well, I just want to call all that rubbish. Yes, it’s true that we don’t know the future, but we know the one does. Or as a more poetic Baptist preacher might put it: “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future” (amen, amen, amen!).
This little four-fold prayer from Psalm 51 is my acknowledgement of that. I can’t tell you what all will happen today, and yes, that is a little terrifying, but I can take responsibility for what I do know: God’s praise matters more than anything; my heart needs work; I really can’t do any of it without the Holy Spirit; I want real joy. And all that today. That is God’s mercy for today.