02 Mercy in Our Homes

Mercy in Our Homes

  • Nearly two-thirds of practicing Christians (63%) say mercy influences their words and actions. One in five says it doesn’t (21%), or that they don’t think about this much (21%).
  • When a person has committed an injustice or personal wrong, practicing Christians struggle to acknowledge a need to have mercy or compassion for them.
  • Family relationships may inspire or shape forgiving attitudes; practicing Christians who are married or have children at home understand mercy differently.


  • What are some scriptural examples of mercy among families or close relationships?
  • What does it look like to ask for and accept forgiveness? What does it look like to extend forgiveness?
  • How can churches offer to help Christians–married and single, with and without children–to foster mercy as a household value?


A Hierarchy of Compassion

People in the Church know they are to forgive others as Christ has forgiven them (Ephesians 4:32) and to counterintuitively and counterculturally turn the other cheek, as Jesus commands in verses like Matthew 5:39. But that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging in day-to-day life—or that, when it comes to some offenses, practicing Christians don’t want to make exceptions.

Forty-four percent agree that all sinners are highly deserving of mercy. But their enemies? Not quite as much. Only 36 percent see their enemies as most deserving of mercy. For further comparison, practicing Christians regard other members of their inner circles, such as family members (56%) or church friends (43%), in a more merciful light. However, just 13 percent of practicing Christians express deep compassion for someone who has personally wronged them, only slightly more than the percentage who feel this level of compassion toward a criminal (9%). It’s possible that the intimacy or immediacy of a personal offense poses a challenge to merciful expressions.

Eight in 10 respondents (81%) report hearing a lot about loving their enemies at church, and a strong majority (85%) says their church at least sometimes encourages them to go so far as helping someone who has wronged them. If churchgoers hear this message so often, why don’t they seem to be putting it into practice? Granted, practicing Christians are still somewhat more likely than the general population to report feeling great compassion for someone who has committed a personal offense (15% vs. 9%). But this study also shows that only 63 percent of practicing Christians say mercy often influences their words or actions, and roughly one in four has someone in mind whom they either can’t or don’t want to forgive.

While believers place few limits on the extravagant forgiveness of the gracious God they serve, there seems to be a mindset that, when it comes to their more personal wounds or conflicts, others have to work a little harder to earn mercy.

Mercy for those who've wronged us


One in Five Practicing Christians Says Mercy Doesn’t Influence Their Lifestyle

Would you say you are a merciful person in your daily routines?

When given a 5-point scale, ranking from “never” (1) to “always” (5) merciful, one-fifth of practicing Christians (19%) rates themselves at the highest level. The plurality of respondents (52%) gives themselves a more modest assessment, feeling that they usually (4) operate mercifully. Though very few practicing Christians (1%) admit “never” feeling merciful, three in 10 (29%) fall on the lower end of the scale (1–3).

Though it seems most practicing Christians have a fairly rosy view of themselves as being merciful people, Barna probed further, to see how mercy—or, as the questionnaire specifies, “a desire to provide relief to others”—steers someone’s daily thoughts, words and deeds. Most practicing Christians—nearly two-thirds (63%)—say this value influences how they speak and act. Even so, one in five respondents says a belief in mercy doesn’t influence their thoughts (21%) or actual lives (21%) very much.

Some demographic groups are more likely to see mercy factoring into their decision making, such as women (67% vs. 57% of men), the college educated (65% vs. 55% of graduates of high school only) and married adults (64% vs. 54% of never-married adults). Faith segmentations also produce marked differences, with Protestants appearing more mercy-driven than Catholics (68% vs. 52%), and evangelicals specifically (80%) strongly asserting that mercy shapes their words and actions. One in three nominal Christians says mercy rarely enters their mind (29%) or impacts their behaviors (30%).

Interestingly, this more specific question eliminates or reverses some of the patterns observed when Barna asked if Christians perceive themselves as being a merciful person; in that case, factors like gender or faith segment make no difference, while younger, single or less-educated adults are more likely to see themselves as always being merciful.

Though there may not be a clear gauge of practicing Christians’ awareness of how mercy has formed their identity and behaviors, respondents at least seem to be wrestling with how they can better reflect or emulate the merciful Christ they follow.


Mercy & Marriage

For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

Whatever the wording of a couple’s wedding vows, there’s generally an acknowledgement that tough times will come. The complex institution of marriage often requires couples to mediate tension—after all, this sacred covenant asks individuals to forsake all others and cling to the partner they’ve chosen. This will include giving and receiving forgiveness, and this study indicates married practicing Christians are following through.

When asked which outcomes characterize real forgiveness, married individuals are significantly more likely than others to prioritize peacemaking. Six out of 10 married respondents (61%) say that not seeking punishment or retribution is a key element of forgiveness, while half of those who have never been married (51%) agree. Nearly three-quarters of married individuals (72%) say forgiveness is about repaired relationships, plain and simple. Those who have never married are 10 percentage points less likely to agree with this statement (62%). Those who have never been married are more likely than married practicing Christians to say restoring a relationship but not forgetting an offense counts as forgiveness (30% vs. 22%). Taken together, these perceptions of real forgiveness suggest married couples more often anticipate the hard work of moving on after an offense.

Couples appear to be better equipped to extend forgiveness more broadly, beyond the context of their home, as well. A third of never-married practicing Christians (33%) says there is someone they don’t want to forgive. This contrasts with less than a quarter of married practicing Christians (24%) who say the same. Similarly, three in 10 never-married singles (28%) also say there’s someone they just can’t forgive, while only one-fifth of married individuals (21%) agrees with this statement.

Relationship Status and Definitions of Forgiveness

The (apparent) abundance of forgiveness in married life could suggest that the act becomes easier with practice. A marriage partnership presents daily opportunities to either delight or offend someone who is very invested in your thoughts and behavior. Thus, married couples likely are well rehearsed in needing forgiveness, too. When asked if there was something for which a person had yet to accept forgiveness, 19 percent of married practicing Christians, compared to 30 percent of singles, say yes.

According to another Barna study produced in partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries, married adults rely on their partner for many needs, both practical and emotional. They tend to look to their spouse first for everything from encouragement and money to questions about faith and the Bible. That’s not to say this is always the best route—unmarried adults also benefit from a diverse network that meets their needs, primarily their mothers, friends and significant others. But it’s possible that the proximity and consistency of a marriage partnership— as well as possible relationship dynamics for couples with children (see page 24)—necessitate that individuals adopt merciful attitudes and behaviors, day in and day out. Closeness helps us acknowledge our need for mercy—and for many, marriage offers a rich landscape to practice this virtue.


Mercy & Parenting

Just as the bond of marriage adds an interesting layer to a practicing Christian’s personal understanding of mercy, so too does the intimacy of parenting. The data show some gaps not only between those who are and are not currently raising children under 18, but at times reveal additional gaps between mothers and fathers or between married and single parents.

When asked about a sense of charity toward various groups, practicing Christians in the child-rearing years are more likely than those who aren’t to express high levels of compassion for the poor (55% vs. 48%), for criminals (13% vs. 7%) or even for people who have wronged them (18% vs. 11%). Given these compassionate attitudes, it makes sense that a pattern continues in looking at reports of giving and receiving unconditional forgiveness. Parents of children under 18 see a spike here (69% have received, 83% have offered), especially mothers (72% vs. 66% of fathers have received, 88% vs. 78% of fathers have offered). This could be due to the fact that women in general report being more forgiving, or might be linked to mothers often being more engaged in daily interactions with children and extended households. Interestingly, parents are still significantly more likely to say there is an individual to whom they can’t yet extend forgiveness (29% vs. 20% of those who aren’t parents).

Experiences of Forgiveness Among Parents of Minors

Overall, parents of minors are much more likely to say there is something for which they personally struggle to receive forgiveness (30% vs. 18% of those without children at home). Single mothers jump up on this point, with four in 10 (41%) admitting a reluctance to accept forgiveness. It’s possible that the more responsibility one has (especially sole responsibility) to nurture a child or home environment, the more opportunities one has to offend or disappoint—and, in the aftermath, to be harder on oneself for doing so.

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