So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (Rom 9:16)
In context, this verse is in a passage discussing people whom God chose to use or to bless in one way or another: specifically mentioned are Isaac, who was chosen over Ishmael, and Jacob, who was chosen over Esau. (As a side note, these verses are often mis-applied to salvation; some attempt to show that God chooses some to be saved and others to be lost).
We first have “him that willeth” – this is the man who says “I WANT THAT!”. It is not wrong to be used of God; in fact, it is quite honorable. However, God is not bound to honor our desires and wants, even if the are for good things. Such a person must guard against bitterness in this form: “God’s not being fair: I wanted it more than he did”… the “it” could be a position in the church, a promotion, financial blessings, some honor, etc — anything that one is/was bitter about not having.
Next we have “him that runneth” – this is the man who is actively doing things; good things. It is very clear from other Scriptures that there are rewards for those who good things. But again, God is not bound to use someone merely because he has done a lot. This person must guard against bitterness in the form of: “God’s not being fair; I’ve done so much for Him!”
And so we come to the truth of the matter: it is first, last, and always “of God that sheweth mercy”. It is His decision and choice to show mercy: if it were something owed to a man, it would not be mercy. No one is owed anything be God; if He chooses to show mercy, it is to His glory and honor that He has done so. Let us return to honoring God more than we honor men!
As a final note, it was pointed out to me that the two types of people here (“him that willeth” and “him that runneth”) could point to the people mentioned earlier in this chapter. Abraham, Isaac, and Rebekah all fit into the first category: they desired God to bless and use a particular son; Esau and especially Jacob fit into the second category: they both did “stuff” to try to obtain the blessing.