The Kyrie: Simple Words, Profound Comfort

Pharisee & Tax Collector

(Luther, “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”)

Sometimes the most simple and obvious things are also the most profound.  We often go to great lengths to find comfort, to improve our situation in life, to find peace.  With God, this is not necessary.  We don’t have to ascend to heaven or go off on some elaborate spirituality quest to find His comfort.  He brings it to you, simply and plainly (Jeremiah 23:23).  In Exodus 34:6, God describes Himself as “merciful and gracious.”  This simple, yet profoundly comforting truth finds its expression in the Church’s Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us!”

The Lord is merciful.  This is such a simple and obvious truth of the Christian faith that we risk taking it for granted.  It is the genius of the liturgy that it takes these simple, profound truths from Scripture and sets them before us as the pattern for our lives.  When you are hurting and have need of comfort, you need not remember some complex set of rules to find your best life now.  Instead, we cry out simply and plainly, “Lord, have mercy!”

There is great comfort in this simple prayer.  God is merciful.  He bids you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24), to daily die and daily rise (Small Catechism; Baptism, IV).  Our Lord is more fully acquainted with sorrow than we could ever be (Isaiah 53:3).  The Lord knows firsthand the weight of the cross, and mercifully, He does not allow you to bear its full weight, nor does He give you to bear it alone.

The Lord is merciful.  The crosses He sends into your life are custom made, neither too heavy nor too light.  Even when He gives you more than you can bear, He will bear you up and sustain you (Psalm 91; 1 Corinthians 10:13).  He who formed you with great care in the womb (Psalm 139:13), who knows the very number of the hairs on your head (Matt 10:30), who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for you, how will He not also with Him graciously give you all things (Romans 8:32)?  In the midst of suffering, into the midst of daily suffering and death, a confident Kyrie is in order.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:31).  Your Kyrie is not in vain.  If, in His mercy, God desires to remove a given cross from your life, He will.

We’re good at the dying part.  We don’t have to look very long or hard to find crosses to bear.  Suffering comes all too naturally to us.  The difficult thing is the rising part, the living by faith part, the part where we trust in God’s good and gracious will even when the crosses He sends tax us to the limit and go against every fiber of our being.  If He will not remove such a cross, faith means trusting that the crosses God sends into our life are for our good, that even such crosses are evidence of God’s mercy.  They probably don’t seem that way at the time, any more than it did for Jesus (Luke 22:42; Matthew 27:46).  But as it is written, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives,” (Hebrews 12:5—6).

God, in His mercy, does not allow you to suffer in vain.  His will is good and gracious.  He grants you the privilege of Sonship when you call upon Him as Father, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.  But fellowship with Christ also means fellowship with His suffering (Matthew 10:25; 1 Peter 2:21).  He grants you the privilege of Sonship when He disciplines you (Hebrews 12:7).  This, too, is of God’s mercy.

God will not leave you to bear these crosses forever.  The Lord is gracious and merciful (Exodus 34:6).  He will  leave you in death no more than He abandoned His Holy One to Sheol (Psalm 16:10).  Jesus rose on the third day, and you are raised up with Christ by faith even now (Ephesians 2:4—9).  By faith we boast in our weaknesses, for faith raises us up to new life, a life in which we rely on His all-sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).  We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come even as we pray, “Give strength and patience unto me to bear my cross and follow Thee,” (LSB, 708, v. 2).  Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.


The Kyrie: Simple Words, Profound Comfort — 10 Comments

  1. From the main post: “’Lord, have mercy!’ There is great comfort in this simple prayer.”

    But not in the prayer alone. In some traditions those words are said but the specter of a scowling and capricious God remains. Is not the comfort, rather, in knowing that God indeed is always inclined toward abundant mercy on account of Christ?

    In each of the choral settings of the Mass that I have sung, the Kyrie has occurred at the very beginning. I understand that to be its traditional placement, and so I have taken its meaning primarily from that context:

    The Kyrie sounds like the cry of those of us who are approaching the throne of grace aware that sin has both brought us suffering and made us unworthy. By pleading for mercy at the beginning of the service, we reveal both that we come for relief from suffering and that we can stand in God’s presence only because of his great mercy.

    The simple prayer can edifying because it elicits a proper humble posture that reflects the truth about our inability to relieve ourselves of what ails and stains us.

    Lamentations 3:22-23 comes to mind, and is a favorite verse.

  2. @Carl H #2
    Thank you for your comment, and you are certainly correct that these words are misunderstood in some traditions. However, there is comfort in the words themselves, rightly understood. For to call upon Christ as “Lord” is to believe that He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature… (Small Catechism, Creed: II). Sasse also discusses the significance of confessing Christ as Lord (see his essay “Jesus Christ is Lord, The Church’s Original Confession” in We Confess Jesus Christ). Additionally, the Apology says, “To call upon Christ’s name is to trust in His name as the cause, or price, because of which we are saved,” (Ap IV, 98). The Kyrie, then, is not only a plea for mercy, but is at the same time a confession that the Lord Jesus is merciful.

  3. He knows just how much you can bear, and He will never give you more than you can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13)

    On this verse, we hear it so often quoted, as you have written, that God will not give you more than you can handle. I think this is not entirely accurate as is commonly understood (or rather misunderstood). God will put us in situations beyond our strength so that we learn to rely on and turn to Him and His strength. The verse speaks specifically of temptations, not crosses, and the way out He has provided, of course, is Christ who was tempted in all ways as we are but was victorious, and not only strengthens us through His Holy Spirit, His Word and the Supper, but prays for us that we not fall, and when we confess our sins has promised to forgive us and cleanse us. He is the “way out”.

  4. @Peggy Pedersen #4
    You’re right that God puts us in those situations that are “beyond our strength” with the goal of leading us to greater dependence on Christ (thus my comment in the article about how these situations “tax us to the limit/go against every fiber of our being.”) While the situations we face are indeed beyond our strength, they are not more than we can handle in Christ (Phil 4:13; 2 Cor 12:9-10).

  5. @Peggy Pedersen #4
    That God will never give you more than you can handle is not at quote from 1 Corinthians 10:13, but rather from the Quran.
    It has, nonetheless, in itself pretty much obtained status of Holy Scripture in the Evangelical world and in popular religion. And now it has slipped in to taint an otherwise brilliant posting.
    It is not in any immediate and unqualified sense true that God will never give us more than we can handle. Some Christians actually break down under what happens to them, and they cannot handle it. And when they are then told, directly or indirectly, that what happened was no more than what they could handle, and that God was not involved in allowing that to happen, which was more than they could handle, and so we can all conclude that He has abandoned them, it keeps them from seeing what is the truth, namely that it is not about what we can handle, but rather about what He will see us through – and that He brings His good will to completion for us through death and resurrection, by mortifying our sinful flesh through that which we cannot handle, which forces us to seek our hope and our life-handling only in Him, and from which He raises us up – without our assistance and in spite of our inability to “handle” things.

  6. @Jais H. Tinglund #6
    I agree with your comments about the mortification of the flesh & resurrection all being God’s work and reject the errors you highlight. I also agree that 1 Cor 10 is not to be understood in some unqualified sense (e.g., some form of prosperity gospel), and when my citation of this text is taken in the context of the entire article, I think this becomes clear. Christ has overcome sin, death, and the devil, and by virtue of our union with Him (cf. Romans 6), so have we. It is in this sense that “God will not give us more than we can handle” (everything that causes us to suffer has been overcome by Christ). I think this point is quite explicit in the final paragraph of my post.

    Luther cites the 1 Cor 10 text in a similar way as I have in his lectures on Genesis (LW 6:99): ““But God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13), however different it appears to human reason and however much every temptation seems to be beyond measure and intolerable.”

  7. @Pastor Eric Andersen #7
    I agree with you. You do not give much room for misunderstanding.
    But I do think that the statement that “God will not give us more than we can handle” is in itself unfortunate – for the reasons I have stated or hinted at.
    And I have often seen relief in the eyes of those who struggled with guilt for being unable to handle what God had given them, when I pointed out to them that it is not the promise of God that He will never give us more than we can handle, and that He might very well do that, and when He does, and when we break – He is still there for us, with His love.
    Again, good posting, though.

  8. Fair enough! I think your application is exactly right, and have experienced the same thing myself in similar pastoral care situations.

  9. Pastor Andersen,

    This was a very beatiful post and has proven true many times in my life. Thank you.
    I would also like to pass this article on from Andrew Preus, which also has proven very helpful in many trials and especially when world, flesh and devil all attack at once.

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