The intern was driving in Houston when his car ran out of gas. While sitting at a busy intersection waiting for help to arrive he was surprised by a young high school student asking if there was anything he could do to help. The intern told him help was coming and he could go on to school. A few minutes later the young man returned with eight or nine friends to help push the car two blocks to a gas station.
The intern was so impressed he wrote a letter to Reed Sutton, the school’s assistant principal. He explained that he thanked the young men profusely but wanted to express his gratitude in more concrete ways, like paying for a pizza or ice cream party. He wrote, "I am extremely grateful for their assistance!" He added, "Thank you for fostering such great values to your students!"
In a reply letter to the intern Reed Sutton wrote, "It is our very purpose at Westbury Christian to enlist spiritual warriors that make a difference in the lives of others." (1)
Where Does Compassion Come From?
Where does the compassion come from that leads people to reach out and help others? Do some just have it and some don’t?
Compassion is something we can learn. In fact, God requires it of his people. Exodus 22 says, "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate." (Vv.25-27).
What is going on in this story? Two questions to ask of any text are: What does the text call for them (the readers) to do? and Why does the text call for them to do that? (2)
The text calls for the readers to allow care and concern for people to override financial concerns and business deals. If you loan money to a brother and he can’t repay you by nightfall, concern for his physical safety is more important than if you get your money back. Give him his coat.
Why does the text call for them to do that? Because it is the very nature of God to be compassionate. "When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate."
There is an important theological principle behind God’s desire that his people show kindness to one another. That principle is that God himself is kind. It is his very nature to be concerned about the needy and to show compassion to them. As we live in relationship with God and grow in likeness to him, his compassion will work through us to others.
The Heart of God
The heart of God is revealed more fully in Exodus. In chapter 33 God assured Moses that his presence would go into the promised land with the Israelites. Moses wanted assurance that God will go, and he wants to see the glory of God revealed.
God sets Moses in a cleft in a rock and Moses gets to see the back of God. Moses sees God and lives! But a glimpse of God’s physical manifestation is not the most amazing revelation of God that day. As God passes in front of Moses he says, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (34:6-7a) . The rest of verse 7 says, "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." God will punish sin and sinners, as numerous stories in the Bible demonstrate. But God prefers to forgive. The destructive wrath of God is alien to his basic nature of compassion and forgiveness (Isaiah 28:21 calls the wrath of God his strange and alien work).
God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, loving, faithful and forgiving. This is the revelation in Exodus 34 that matters. Moses saw the back of God. That is an unusual and rare occurrence in the Bible! But that is not the most significant, either. What really matters is that Moses got to peer inside the heart of God.
Psalms and the Prophets
This revelation of God becomes foundational throughout the rest of the Old Testament, even the whole Bible. Exodus 34:6 is foundational in the Psalmist’s understanding of God, and it is the basis of his relationship with him. In Psalm 86, after pleading poverty and need and after crying out that he is under attack from evil men, the Psalmist writes, "But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (v.15). The Psalmist believes he can turn confidently to God in his need because God cares.
The Psalmist again draws upon this verse in Psalm 103. The Psalmist praises God for forgiving sin and refreshing life. He praises God for working "righteousness and justice for all the oppressed" (v.6). How can God do so much marvelous things for people? "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" (vs.7-8). God loves and forgives, heals and saves, restores and satisfies, because that is his nature.
The prophets also pick up on Exodus 34:6. Even as Joel was announcing destruction because of sin, he was also counseling repentance. "Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending his calamity" (Joel 2:12-13).
Other prophets show an intense awareness of Exodus 34:6. Amos upbraids the more powerful citizens for reducing the powerless to slavery (2:6), hoarding wealth (3:10) and depriving the poor of justice (5:12).
The Psalmists and prophets viewed God, their lives, their ministries and care for others in view of Exodus 34:6. They studied their Bible. They may have received some new revelation from God, but their hearts and lives were formed on the ancient truth that God is compassionate.
The New Testament
Jesus’ life and ministry embodied the compassionate heart of God. When pressed by crowds demanding attention and care, Jesus "had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). Hungry people moved Jesus to compassion (Matthew 15:32). Even as Jesus was recalling the sins of Jerusalem he could not do so without feeling pain for the city. Compassion drove him to exclaim, "How I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" (Matthew 23:37).
Just one more verse. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul writes, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." The similarity of this verse and Exodus 34:6 is more than coincidental. Paul read his Old Testament and knew the heart of God. The language used to describe God in the Old Testament is carried into the New. God still forgives, but now does it through Jesus Christ.
What does Compassion Look like Today?
Kate is a young American missionary in Uganda. Her ministry is as a stay-home mom to almost a dozen orphans. Right now she is potty training several of the children, a task that often consumes her whole day and leaves her exhausted. But, even in her exhaustion Kate does not lose sight of the magnitude of her task: bearing the compassion of God to the world.
"I begin to think of the children who do not have a mother or a father. Where will they learn love? Who will tell them bed time stories and dance them around the living room? Who will teach them that they are loved and valued and cherished? ... The body of Christ. Each person who calls themself a follower of Christ takes up the responsibility to love and care for the fatherless. It is not some special, specific calling. It is the duty of all who call themselves Christians. There are one hundred forty something million fatherless, motherless, parentless children who are not shown unconditional love by another human being on a daily basis. How will we then tell them that Jesus loves them? I am certain that God did not mess up and create too many children and not enough people to love them ... Please join my broken heart in praying for the fatherless, but more than that please pray about how YOU can be instrumental in loving the fatherless. They are not just in Africa, they are right in your own community." (3)
Kate exemplifies the heart of God and the spirit of Exodus 34:6 in her loving care of Uganda’s needy.
Nine boys on a busy Houston street and Kate in Africa, that is what compassion looks like today. Seeing a need, caring and helping is God’s call for all of us who wear the name of his son. From the earliest pages of the Old Testament through the New Testament we see the compassionate heart of God revealed in his forgiveness, love, mercy and service. And we see the accompanying call that we live out the heart of God.
Kate is right. There are orphans in our neighborhood. There are kids looking for the care and attention we can give them. There are also hungry, lonely and destitute adults. Can we see them with the heart of God?
March 29, 2009
1.This story is told in Steve Hawley’s blog, "What Then Is This Child Going To Be?" at http://stevehawley.blogspot.com/. Steve is a Bible teacher and basketball coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston. I like what the title of his blog implies: That the work we do in teaching and mentoring is doing more than imparting information; it is building a life.
2.These questions are part of an exegetical approach taught in class by John Mark Hicks. See http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com/category/hermeneutics/).
3. From The Journey, at http://kissesfromkatie.blogspot.com/.