Compassion: The Common Work of God

At times, I’ve heard a sentiment like this repeated: “It should surprise us that God should have compassion on us in our rebellion.” The statement above is common at least by way of sentiment in the evangelical world. But I wonder if it is true. Should we be surprised that God would move to have compassion on us? Or should we assume his compassion and be surprised at his wrath?

God’s Default State: Compassion

First off, I’d like to point out that God’s default state is compassion. It is for God’s compassions which “have been from of old.” The Psalmist who was is dire straights called on God to restore these old compassions (Ps 25:6, cf. Ps 69:16). The old compassions, then, were there long before the trials in which the Psalmist found himself. In another place, a Psalmist cries to God for preservation based on God’s abundant compassion and loyalty (Ps 40:11). “Compassion,” he says with upmost confidence to God, “you will not withhold from me.” And even in wicked transgression, David cries to God to forgive his sin “according to the greatness of Yahweh’s compassion” (Ps 51:1). God’s compassion isn’t absent in David (and our) sin. Rather, it is intensified.

 Another Psalmist asks: “Has [God] in anger withdrawn His compassion?” (Ps 77:9). The operating assumption here is that for compassion to be withdrawn, it must have been there in the first place. In other words, before anger there was compassion. Before there was a need for retribution, God was already communing with his subjects based on compassion. And when that retribution comes, it is not as if we have no ability to call on God to return his compassion. For as the Psalmist pleads, “let Your compassion come quickly to meet us” (Ps 79:8; cf. Ps 119:77). And God is quick to redeem our lives from the pit and to crown us in his loyalty and compassion (Ps 103:4; cf. Ps 106:46).

Compassion from God is not something that we can hope to get or be surprised when it comes. No, not at all. It is in fact the default stance God has toward us. His compassion is the boldness we can claim when we cry for help even in our sin.

Christ’s Default State: Humility

Second, a profound statement comes to us from the narration of John:

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

John 13:2-5 (NRSV, throughout)

The profoundness of these verses strikes at the root of our sin-cursed concept of God. Because Jesus knows who he is, because he knows that he is God, because he knows more of the mystery of the trinity than we will ever know, he humbled himself to servanthood. When the full right of his essence came to possess his understanding, he was not puffed up with pride as he had every right to be. Instead, the knowledge of his eternal deity and power drove him to serve his sin-filled cohort.

See, we expect God to be like our leaders. But this is not the case. Christ sums up our view of human rulers very well: “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mt 20:25). We expect God to be quick to anger, cold, and distant. We expect him to withhold compassion just because he can. We expect him to be so loath with us that we are better off ignored by him than to interrupt his work to ask for compassion. We expect him to be angry and annoyed that we do not measure up to his perfection. But this is not how God describes himself. Jesus “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). And we see this service in one of those great early hymns of the faith:

Christ though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God / as something to be exploited, / but emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / being born in human likeness. / And being found in human form, / he humbled himself / and became obedient to the point of death— / even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:6-8

The humility of God especially through the work and person of Christ makes his compassion readily available to us. He is not some distant tyrant concerned only with hording glory to himself (cf. Jn 17:22). When he considers his full deity, it is his instinct to serve and thereby show compassion.

God’s Strange State: Anger

Third, the strange state of God is his anger and wrath. Before rebellion, there was no place for wrath because there was no one who deserved it. Yet, with rebellion comes anger. And since we all sin, we all are “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Still, he does not act quickly to perform his wrath because he is innately compassionate and humble as described above. Instead, “the Lord is not slow about his promise [for judgement], as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2Pt 3:9). And when his hand is forced into judgement, Isaiah says concerning it: “the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim, / he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon / to do his deed—strange is his deed!— / and to work his work—alien is his work!” (Is 28:21). His judgement is strange and alien to him. He’d rather all come to repentance. But he still will exercise judgment for those who refuse his offer. And as Jeremiah laments:

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion / according to the abundance of his steadfast love; / for he does not willingly afflict / or grieve anyone.

Jeremiah 3:32-33

And as God swears on himself: “As I live. . ., I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways.”

God’s anger and distance is foreign to him. He does not desire people to reject him. He gives them a choice. Someday, the opportunity will be gone. But he leaves that verdict up to them.

Concluding Reflection

While certainly we do not deserve God’s compassion, we should not be surprised by it. It is he nature. It is his being. It is who he is. Yes, his anger burns against rebellion. But that fact does not destroy his essence. He withholds his anger so that we have a chance to repent. And we can claim his compassion as the basis for forgiveness.

Should God’s compassion humble us? Absolutely. Should God’s compassion surprise us? Absolutely not. His compassion should feel so readily available to us that should be surprised if he withholds it from people. To receive his compassion should not surprise us. In fact, if there is one aspect of his character that we can count on, it is that we can rely on his compassion. As he said, “I dwell in the high and holy place, / and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, / to revive the spirit of the humble, / and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Is 57:15).

Do not be deceived. God loves to show you compassion.

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