Imitators of God: Gracious & Compassionate

“YHWH, YHWH, the gracious and compassionate God” (Exodus 34:6)

32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.

35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate (Luke 6:32-36 NLT)

This is part of a series of reflections on Paul’s call to “Be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1). The first reflection was a general overview of how each believer can imitate Christ in their own context. The second was a reflection on the Church as living out the life of Christ as a community. Over the course of August, we are digging more in depth into specific aspects of this. We will be focusing our attention on the character of God, and how we are called to mimic those same characteristics in our lives and in the Church.

The character of God is revealed to us in Exodus 346-7. This self-description of God will be the basis of how we will proceed. The reflection at hand has to do with the description of God as “gracious and compassionate (or merciful depending on your translation, but I prefer to translate it as compassionate)”[1]

What is grace/gracious (from the Hebrew hen)? Kind, caring, blessing, giving. The Greek root is charis. To be  gracious is to be generous, to be overflowing with showing favour to others.

Compassion is from the Hebrew root word womb. Sounds weird, I know. But to be compassionate is to be attached, connected, caring. The Greek splanchnon which usually gets translated as compassionate, comes from the root word meaning bowels or guts. Compassion sits deep. It’s not just a shallow thing. It is something moving you at the core, from deep down. Compassion flows from a “heart wrenching” feeling of needing to respond to something. You can’t be compassionate from a distance. The English compassion comes from Latin to suffer with. Not just commiserating (mourning with those who mourn is very biblical though, and an act of compassion, but that needs fleshing out in another space). Compassion in the biblical sense is also redemptive or restorative. It is to enter a person’s darkness to become a light-bearer. It is to be present in the midst of suffering, but also to help alleviate that suffering. You can’t show compassion and remain distant. You have to get in there. Nouwen suggests that ministry is impossible from a distance.[2]  It is impossible without risk. Showing compassion may get you burned. Just ask Jesus.

To demonstrate the compassionate nature of God, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. The father, who has been sinned against by his own son, who has spent his inheritance on frivolous living, is “filled with compassion” (Lk.15:20) for his returning son. He runs to him, he embraces him. He doesn’t stand back and wait; he charges to his son as he is. Dirty, raggedy, probably covered in pig feces. Compassion means the person is more important than the mess. The father decides his love for his son matters more than social norms, dignity and even more than hygiene.

Grace and compassion are at the core of who God is.

God declares himself to be God gracious and compassionate/merciful. That’s who he is. We have to let that seep in. We have defunct understanding of God sometimes. We say God is holy and righteous. Yes, he is. But what does that mean? Holy doesn’t mean clean, or that he doesn’t touch sinful dirty stuff. Holy means different. He is unique. He is unlike anything in creation. And part of what makes him so different is that he loves in a way that is so radically different than anything we ever do. He loves with true compassion and grace. He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. He shows grace to the just and the unjust alike. He embraces the son who acted like a total jerk and ran away and comes back broke and covered in pig feces. That’s holy love. That’s what it means to be gracious and compassionate. He isn’t cold and distant. He is close, and intimately concerned. He has what can best be described as a maternal love for his creation.

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” Isa. 49:15

As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” Isa. 66:13

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hengathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Luke 13:34

God’s has this visceral, passionate, intimate love for his people. He is not an objective observer and note-taker, evaluating critically. Nor is he harsh, hostile, waiting to see if you sin and if you do he’ll get you. That’s not God. His mercy and his compassion and his grace are his defining qualities.

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; (Ps. 103)

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Ps. 145)

And finally, Dan. 9:9 “To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness.”

And because it is central to who God is, it is to be central to who we are. We are to be compassionate as he is compassionate Jesus tells us (Lk. 6:36). Because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we too ought to do the same. We are to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1). God is calling us to a “family resemblance” between the Father, the Son (who is “full of grace and truth” [Jn. 1:14]) and us as his children.

In the Old Testament, the God of Israel told his people, (Zech 8) “Administer true justice, show love and compassion to one another.” Psalm 112 describes the person who is righteous as uses the same terminology with which God describes himself, “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”

Secondly, grace and compassion are inherently practical.

Grace and compassion do something. Compassion is not simply a feeling. It is not to see suffering and say, “oh that’s terrible”. That’s pity. Not the same thing. Compassion acts. Compassion enters into the darkness with the one who suffers, and does something about it. Compassion costs us something. It demands something of us. Like the Good Samaritan, we step in, get dirty if we must, invest something of ourselves and our resources to demonstrate kindness to the other. We have to be willing to risk. As Henri Nouwen phrases it “Who can take away suffering without entering into it?” [3]

Jesus, in showing compassion offered healing. Repeatedly we read that Jesus “had compassion on them” in stories of healings. Compassion and grace offer something tangible. Kindness is demonstrated. It is shown. It is offered to another. Jesus tells us to do good to those who hate us, and to give whether we think we’ll be repaid or not (Lk. 6:35). Jesus’ mention of loans is is an important one. In Old Testament law, God prescribed a year when debts were to be cancelled. And God seemed to know something about human nature. He reminded Israel, as that year approaches, don’t get stingy with your giving away of money. He knew if the release from debt was six months away, people wouldn’t lend. But God says, no, always be ready to give something away to the one who needs it. Getting repaid is not the reason to share what you have.

And that doesn’t just apply to money. We don’t do good so we will receive back. Showing kindness has an inherent reward in and of itself. You are rewarded in the fact that you are being who God designed you to be- the image or icon of God himself. We are finite, physical representations of the infinite God who is pure Spirit. When we offer grace, we are doing what we are inherently meant to do.

God offers us grace. He reaches out to us. He revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and has extended the offer of new life. God’s grace and compassion is not just an abstract. It can, and should do something to who we are.

Finally, grace and compassion are inherently indiscriminate.

“Grace is free to everyone, and so must be the love and practical compassion of the believer.”[4] Just as God’s grace and compassion are freely given, so too is ours. Just as God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, we too must be kind and gracious even to those we may not want to. We far too often hold back our love and kindness from some people. We see the sin, the brokenness and poor choices. We use all sorts of excuses to get around helping people.

“They made their bed, they can lie in it.”

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“They can deal with the consequences of their own choices.”

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t discourage people from taking responsibility for their actions. I’m not saying give a free pass on everything. What I am saying is that is that God responds to us to deliver us from our own sin while we are still in the middle of it. Jesus does not say “get it together, then come follow me.” Instead Jesus says come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. He is gentle and compassionate with us in our weakness and darkness. How can we then be so exclusive with our offers of grace? Why do we attach strings?

Jesus did not tell us to have compassion on some but not others. Nor did he say love the sinner hate the sin (whether or not this is an appropriate saying or not is the topic for another discussion). He said be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Period. Love your neighbour as yourself. Period. Love as I have loved you. Period. This doesn’t mean we don’t address sin, or we don’t encourage people to “go and leave your life of sin”. But we certainly are not called to heap shame on the person being crushed by the consequences of their poor choices. To wag fingers and roll our eyes is inherently unChrist-like. Compassion does not say “you messed up” but offers “how can I help you out of this?” Grace says “ok, what do you need right now?”

This has earth shattering consequences for how we interact with people who aren’t part of the church as well as each other. It demands a different approach to the way talk about homosexuality, addictions, mental health, pornography, unplanned pregnancies, etc. The folks we all too often scowl at are the ones God calls us to show kindness, mercy, grace, compassion. Jesus was heavily criticized for the company he kept. He showed love and kindness to all sorts of folks the religious folk of his day wanted nothing to do with. He told the Pharisees that prostitutes were getting into the Kingdom ahead of them. Think about that for a second. And ask yourself what would it look like if compassion were extended from us to sinners? What would it look like if the Church as a whole decided to actually imitate the compassion of Jesus Christ? What if we all offered living water instead hellfire? What if we offered good news instead of a threat of retribution? What if we told the teenaged mother “you can have life in abundance” instead of “you threw your life away”? What if we told sinners God is for them instead of God is angry? God’s compassion lifts up, it doesn’t tear down. 

[1] Most of the reflections coming up in August are highly dependent on the incredibly wonderful book: Knowles, Michael P., The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2012. This incredible book examines the nature of God based on his self-description and probes the three Abrahamic religions to understand who is this God we all claim to worship. The reflection at hand borrows significantly from chapter 2 of that book.

[2] See Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, New York: Image Books, 1972.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1990. 111

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