But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused…
Theologians divide the attributes of God into two categories, which are rather grandly referred to as communicable and incommunicable. As is so often the way in theology, big words convey a relatively simple idea. Incommunicable attributes are aspects of God’s being and character that we do not and cannot share. His omnipresence (which we looked at in our last study) is a good example. We cannot ever be (even in our glorified and resurrected state) everywhere and always fully present. There are simply aspects of God’s life and existence that He doesn’t share with His creation.
But when we come to His ‘communicable’ attributes, we discover it is in some measure possible to reflect the reality of who God is. This is part of what we mean when we talk about being created in His Image – facets of his being and character are reflected in our own experience of life. Examples include wisdom, knowledge, patience, mercy etc. Granted, God’s experience of life is infinitely greater than ours (Is.55:9), but still we find the Bible calling us in some limited sense to imitate the dynamics of that life. Often this is quite explicit: ‘Follow God’s example … and live a life of love’ (Eph.5:1). This pattern of envisioning for the Christian life is repeated over and over again (e.g. II Cor.1:3-4; Phil.2:5). It is a method the Apostles learned from Christ (Matt.5:44-45).
Into this latter category of communicable attributes falls ‘compassion’. The compassion of our God is the grounds of worship (e.g. Ps.111:1-4), and in this case, an aspect of authentic worship is imitation. We are to be compassionate because the God in whose Image we have been created, and into whose Image we are once again being fashioned is compassionate (Col.3:10). He reveals Himself to be such in response to Moses’ prayer: ‘Show me your glory’ (Ex.33:18).
The LORD’s reply, ‘I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my Name, the LORD in your presence … I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’. His compassion is deeply intertwined with His glory (see also Ex.34:6). Nehemiah’s great prayer (Neh.9:5f) repeatedly looks to the compassion of God as the motivation for His dealing with His people. It was because of His compassion that He did not desert Israel, but led them through the wilderness after they had built the golden calf (v.17-19); it was because of His compassion that He raised up the Judges (v.27-28). His compassion is what motivates Him to be gracious and redemptive, rather than to abandon them to His judgement. This compassion is rooted in His covenant faithfulness (II Kings 13:23; Ezekiel 39:25), rather than the authenticity of the people’s response, and as such, often gives repentant sinners confidence (Ps.51:1).
Few of God’s characteristics take us more deliberately into the tenderness of our God. Passages such as Is.49:10-13 show us the depths of God’s compassion and His determination to be compassionate to His people (see also 54:7-10). These are incredibly moving passages that confront us with the heart of God. And as this is the heart of God, it is no surprise to find compassion repeatedly motivating Jesus during His Incarnation. Again and again we are told that Jesus does what He does because He had compassion (Matt.9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34). It is always the precursor to the showing of mercy, and His acting to bring healing or provision. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the Father of compassion (II Cor.1:3), and the One who is ‘the exact representation of His being’ must display this same foundational characteristics. And so as we are recreated into His Image, we would also expect to find ourselves caught up in His display of compassion. ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another’ (Eph.4:32); clothe yourselves with compassion (Col.3:12); …be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble (I Pet.3:8).
In the light of what we have considered above, why is it so important to make sure that our vision of God is faithful to the reality of who God is?
From your consideration of these Bible passages (and any others you find), how would you define compassion?
How has God been compassionate to you? How should your experience of God’s compassion shape your compassion for others? In what ways can our compassion reflect God’s, and in what ways is His compassion beyond anything we could imitate?
How confident are you in God’s compassion? How would you help someone who was struggling with a particular expression of sin, and was finding it difficult to believe that ‘You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea’ (Mic.7:19)?
If you were to reflect God’s compassion more faithfully to those you know, how would that affect your dealings with specific people? What stops you from showing compassion? How can you overcome these hindrances?
In Lamentations 3:22, Jeremiah writes: ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail’. Given the Church’s experience (see e.g 4:9-10), this is startling to say the least. How can you make sense of Jeremiah’s confession of God’s compassion in the midst of such suffering?
He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
For further reflection
We might assume that a study in compassion would climax in our concern for people’s physical and social well-being (perhaps as in Ex.22:26-27, or Zech.7:9-10). In fact, we finish our study by focussing on the Compassion of God as a foundation of our confidence in evangelism.
A compassionate God is a God who saves people. In His pity and concern for those enslaved by sin and subject to condemnation, He chooses to act so as to alleviate their suffering. In a strange way this comes out most clearly in the book of Jonah. In 4:2, the prophet’s anger with God finds voice: ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’. Jonah knew better than most of us how powerful this characteristic of God is. Similarly, as Paul celebrates God’s initiative in saving a people for Himself from among the Gentiles, he finds himself confronting God’s compassion as His motivation for the grace of the Gospel (Rom.9:15). And it is in the context of Jesus’s compassion that we are told the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Matt.9:35-38). Confronted with the deepest prospect of human suffering, Jesus does all He can to relieve it absolutely. The cross is His greatest act of compassion. The preaching of the cross is ours.
Why does the vision of God’s compassion not inspire similar confidence in us?