Word of the Week
October 15, 2022
Hilarotēs: The Art of Cheerful Compassion
He who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Last week, a student emailed me and asked for a deadline extension – he hadn’t realized he was supposed to write a research paper until the day it was due. Could he have some extra time?
I put that paper in the syllabus and I know I talked about it in class several times. How could he not know that he was supposed to write it?
I replied, “This is not good! But I’ll give you until Friday to turn it in.” In other words, I decided to show a little mercy, but I made it clear that I wasn’t excited about doing it.
In hindsight, I think I may have overlooked the instructions Paul gave in Romans 12:8 about the proper way to show mercy. He used a distinctive Greek word to make his point.
The apostle was going through a list of the spiritual gifts that God uses to equip His children for ministry, explaining how to utilize each gift. And he ended the list by saying, “He who shows mercy, let him do it with cheerfulness.”
The Greek word is hilarotēs. It’s the source for our word “hilarious,” but that’s not the best translation. This isn’t a command to guffaw or tell jokes. It does make it clear that we’re not supposed to be grumpy when we show mercy.
Hilarotēs means “glad” or “cheerful.” The ancient Greeks used it to describe songs, messages, or people. In the Old Testament, it described a cheerful countenance or the favor of a king.
It occurs only in Romans 12:8, but the matching adjective hilaros shows up in 2 Corinthians 9:7, where we learn that “God loves a cheerful giver.” In that passage, we’re talking about making a financial donation to a special offering designated for a relief fund that will help the Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul urges the believers to give generously but reminds them that the attitude makes a difference. The money will be helpful to the Jerusalem church regardless of the attitude of the giver, but God wants His people to have the right attitude when they give – not grudgingly, but joyfully.
After all, giving is a privilege. It reminds us that we have been given much by the Lord, and it’s wonderful to have enough to share with others. It’s a signal of His blessing.
It’s a similar concept in Romans 12:8. Here the issue is one of showing mercy, not putting cash in the collection plate.
The merciful heart is one of the spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has equipped some of His people to have a tender heart for others. The Greek word for “showing mercy” is eleeo, which one writer has described as “showing concern for someone who is in a bad situation.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that it is “the outward manifestation of pity. It assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it.”
When you encounter someone who is in distress, drowning in debt or conflict or despair, do you feel the urge to help them? Do you feel their pain and want to ease it?
That’s a regular feature of life for a person with the gift of showing mercy.
God gives us the pattern for mercy. Psalm 145:9 says, “The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” Goodness lies at the root of His character. It shows itself as grace to those who are guilty, and it shows itself as mercy to those who are miserable.
From our perspective, we know He shows mercy cheerfully, without grudging. As an example, take James 1:5 – When we ask God for wisdom, “he gives to all generously and without reproach.” Unlike my confused student, we can come to the Lord again and again with our messes and find that He is still glad to see us. His default setting is not to scold, but to gather us in His arms and provide the help we need.
The next time you’re inclined to brush someone off, remember the mercy of God. Reluctant help is still help. But if God has equipped you with the gift of showing mercy, He will enable you to do with joy. If you’re going to do it, you might as well be cheerful about it!
This word appears only once in the New Testament, and the lexicons/dictionaries don’t say too much about it. That’s OK – you don’t have to write a book on every word! On this word, the main thing is to avoid the error of simply jumping to the meaning of the English word hilarious. That’s a word in a different language, invented hundreds of years after the New Testament. It’s the Greek definition that will be most helpful.
A Word from Japan
Three weeks ago, my wife and I heard the news that Japan had dropped its COVID restrictions on travel by foreigners. We decided to take advantage of this opportunity to visit our daughter doing missionary work in Sapporo. Two weeks ago, we bought the tickets and embarked on a crash program to get ready. I am writing this letter from Sapporo, Japan. We arrived last night and we’re in the middle of jet lag (which explains any typos!).
During this crunch time, I won’t be able to write much new material, so we will pull some material from the archives for you. We will be back on the usual schedule early in November!
©Ezra Project 2022