February 27, 2013

Who gets God’s compassion?

Yesterday I watched a television program, total fiction, depicting a person whose child had been abducted. I felt compassion for this parent, not because I knew him (it was fiction anyway) or because I’ve ever had the same thing happen. My emotions were solely about how awful it would be to experience such a horror. 

Today’s devotional reading is about the compassion of God, and upon reflection, I realize some differences between His compassion and mine.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Psalm 103:13–18)

While the Bible is clear that the love of God is unconditional and freely offered to all, these verses say that His compassion has some criteria. It isn’t that God plays favorites, but notice that His compassion is for those who fear Him and do His commandments. Does this mean fear and obedience earn His compassion? Not at all. 

My Hebrew dictionary says that the word used in these verses is râcham. It means: “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on, show love, i.e., have feelings and actions of kindness and concern for one in difficulty, regardless of one’s state of guilt for an offense, usually based in a relationship or association.” 

The key is that last line, “based in a relationship” which tells me that the love of God is directed particularly toward those who are in a relationship with Him. This does not mean God has no love for those who are not because He gave His Son for the sins of all. Yet, there is a special compassion for His children, those born into His family by faith, “adopted into the beloved” because they believe in Jesus and have received Him into their lives.

This compassion could be compared to how I would feel if my own child was abducted or injured. I might feel terrible pain to see an awful thing happen to someone else’s child, but if it were my own, that pain would be magnified, even unbearable because of the relationship.

These verses also say that God has compassion “on those who fear Him.” Does that mean He plays favorites? No, it does not. It means that His children are those who fear Him. This attribute, as well as the attributes of keeping His covenant and obeying His commands belong to His children. Those outside the family of God who are without faith and have never repented of their sin do not fit into the category of having a relationship with God. Therefore, the compassion that He feels for them is not the same as for those who are His children and in His family. 

I’m trying to wrap my head around this, but perhaps another way to explain it is by the way human love works. I might love someone but that love is not reciprocal. I feel a deep affection and longing, but it is not the same as being in love with someone who loves you in return. Similarly, God loves all, but not all love Him. Because of that, His compassion for the lost is still there, but without the relationship, those people never experience it the same way as those do who are in His family. Two-way love is different, deeper, richer. 

… love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God… In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)

God’s love is there, in His heart, ready to be poured out. Those who receive it through a relationship of faith and new life are able to love Him and others. These are the children who fear and obey Him. These are the children who know His compassion. 

Knowing God’s compassion is not about the magnitude of our afflictions, nor is it about earning His favor. It is about being His children, and even then, we can only receive it — and be glad.

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