And yet . . .
We still can’t relate (at least in the flesh) to Jesus’ being moved with compassion. You see, we can’t just take our human version of love or mercy or compassion—virtues common to all human beings—and ratchet them up to the sky in order to see what God’s love or mercy or compassion looks like. That’s backwards, upside-down. Instead, we need to look to the Scriptures, to the character of God, to see what love and all the rest really are, and then bring those to bear in our own lives.
A Scripture that comes to mind is Ezekiel 6:4-6, in which God tells Ezekiel to prophecy to his people: “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!' I said to you in your blood, 'Live!'” (ESV)
Upon first reading, that would seem to reinforce the idea that you and I can fully relate to Jesus’ compassion. After all, who among us could walk by an abandoned newborn baby and not do everything possible to help it live, to wash it off and care for it. That’s about a million times more compelling than finding a lost puppy, but it’s along the same lines, right?
Look closer. Ezekiel is here proclaiming the Gospel message using the beautiful picture of adoption. God saw a child with no one to care for him, and so he took it upon himself. (Yes, Christians who choose to adopt children are living out a picture of the Gospel!) But whose child is he adopting? It’s his enemy’s child! It’s the children of the serpent, the children of rebellion!
And more than that, this is not a sweet, whimpering baby wrapped in a blanket or left in a basket on the doorstep. Yes, it’s a pathetic picture, but not in the “Awwww, look at the poor widdle baby” sort of way. This abandoned child, despised and wallowing in blood, is actively rebelling against the one who would save him; that’s the cohesive picture of the unregenerate sinner presented in Scripture. Snarling and cursing and snapping at our Creator—this newborn is giving him the finger and blaspheming as the Father passes by. God is moved with compassion here not because of who Israel is (and certainly not because of who we are), but because of who He is.
Granted, it’s a rather gross picture because it shows not only our helplessness to save ourselves, but our native animosity to the very idea of being saved. Scripture uses other gross pictures for sin as well: putrifying sores, a canker or gangrene, vomit to which a dog returns again and again. I had jotted down two other examples, but I honestly think I’ve made the point and the other two are so disgusting they might cause you to stop reading.
The point is this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Not, once we changed our minds and became sweet, sad little lost puppies, doe-eyed and asking for help. Human compassion might be moved to respond to something like that. But God’s love and compassion are different altogether.
Martin Luther put it this way: “The Love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.” Read that again and then think about what that kind of love would look like! It’s hard to fathom. I remember the first time I noticed my wife walking the halls of Garber high school almost twenty years ago (she wasn’t my wife then). I remember it well. She was (and is) gorgeous, talented, so very confident. I remember thinking to myself: “Dibs.” I knew I had to do whatever it took to make her mine.
And as I got to know her and understand just how kind and sweet she was and how it made me feel good to be around her, my love for her slowly grew over the course of years from infatuation to puppy love to immature romantic love and on and on. But in those early stages of human affection, each time the love levels up, it is the result of another set of hoops being jumped through and hurdles being cleared. Human love finds what it is pleasing to it and says, “Dibs.”
But God’s love creates what is pleasing to it! God sees the helpless, rebellious, filthy sinner, despising his aid and scorning his rule, looks down at that wretched creature and says, “Dibs. I will make of this sinner a saint!” That’s not human love or compassion ratcheted up to the Nth degree; that’s something else altogether. That’s agape love.
And praise God for that kind of love. Without it, we would still be in our blood, dead and dying. But now we are in His blood, alive and being renewed! We’re adopted now, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. And this is not some future promise that will be fulfilled. I John 3:2 tells us this is what we are now.
And if that’s the case, then we can (and must) love the people of this world, not with the kind of human love that is common to all, but with the agape love that God showed us. We must show people compassion, not just when they tug at our natural heartstrings, but when there is nothing loveable or even pitiful about them. By the very example he showed us, Jesus is compelling us to look upon a world as wretched and sinful as we once were and to respond, not with hatred or disgust, not with self-righteousness or a sense of moral superiority, but with compassion—the same kind of compassion we ourselves received. The more we recognize the extent of our fallenness, the more we will comprehend of our Father’s unfailing love . . . and the more we will be able to love him and love others.
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven--for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."
– Jesus Christ, Luke 7:47 (ESV)
Soli Deo Gloria,