Story behind the song – Merciful God

by / Saturday, 10 August 2013 / Published in songstory

Bible references: Psalm 32; Luke 18:9-14; 1 John 1:5-2:2; James 5:13-16

Themes: confession, sin, guilt, repentance, grace, humility

My kids get a perverse satisfaction out of the word “fail”. They certainly get plenty of opportunity to observe it in me. (Matching correct child with corresponding lunch. Remembering which one is Han Solo and which one is Jabba the Hutt. Pairing up socks. And so on.)

Given the number of things human beings fail at, it’s ironic that perhaps the thing we find hardest to do in life is to admit failure. In fact, it takes the powerful work of God’s Spirit within us for it to happen. Even those of us who live with constant feelings of self-doubt, or even self-loathing, find it hard to confess our sin and failure. But how freeing it is when we do!

We may well deceive ourselves, but there is no deceiving the one who knows us more than we know ourselves. We can’t, and we don’t need to. Look at David’s confession in Psalm 32. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away…Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” The forgiveness of sins happens in a once for all moment by faith in Jesus, but such is our bent towards self-righteousness that we need to confess it all the time.

Corporately admitting our guilt has often been a trademark of the life of God’s people (See Daniel 9:1-19, Nehemiah 9, 1 John 1:5-2:2, James 5:13-16 for some examples). I’m not sure why we don’t do it so much now. Perhaps we have taken on board our culture’s love affair with “self”. Perhaps it is related to the way we tend to experience church as consumers rather than partakers. But a self-made people will destroy itself. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Tax collectors not Pharisees.

This confession is based on the one forever printed on my memory from growing up with the many rich and glorious prayers of the Australian Prayer Book. It has been suggested that I should refer to Jesus’ blood as the means of forgiveness within the song. Perhaps. I did make many attempts at a verse 2. But I really wanted to ensure that feelings of regret, helplessness and utter loathing of sin were not moved away from too quickly. That we would throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, as the Old Testament faithful did, not even knowing how their sin would be eventually atoned for. Having faced the depths of our sin, we appreciate all the more the depths of God’s mercy in the blood of Jesus. And then we are ready to sing wondrous words as these from Rock of Ages:

“Naked come to you for dress
Helpless look to you for grace
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.”

© 2013 Liz Gordon

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