Scripture is clear that God is gracious and compassionate. We see this stated throughout biblical revelation. All of the various traditions within Christianity can agree that grace and compassion are true reflections of God’s character, but how often do we actually define these things. Compassion, in particular, is a word that many of us use without stopping to consider what it actually means. We often think of God’s compassion as his looking upon a people and being moved to have pity on them because of their condition. Do we think this because it is an accurate, biblical definition or because that is how the world around us has defined it?

I would like to draw your attention to Jonah 4 and the account of the plant that God causes to grow up over Jonah’s head to relieve him of his discomfort. Nineveh has just repented, and Jonah has gone outside the city in his anger to watch the city and has asked God to let him die. In verse 6, God appoints a plant to grow up over Jonah so that it might provide shade for his head and save him from his discomfort, and Jonah is exceedingly happy about the plant. Then, in verse 7, God appoints a worm to attack the plant so that it withers. After the sun comes up and beats down on Jonah’s head in verse 8, he becomes faint and asks that he might die. Then, in verse 10, God says to Jonah, “You had compassion on the plant.”

In this statement, God defines compassion for us. He says that what Jonah did with the plant was compassion. So, what did Jonah do with the plant? Well, nothing. He was merely upset when it withered, but why was he upset? Was he upset because he felt bad for the plant? Was he upset because he had some sort of emotional connection with the plant that made him sad when he saw it withering? No. He was upset because it was not providing him with shade any longer.

What is interesting is that God uses the same word in verse 11 when he says, “And should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” God equates his behavior towards Nineveh with Jonah’s behavior towards the plant. Therefore, God’s compassion on Nineveh is not his feeling bad for the Ninevites. It is not his being moved by some kind of emotional connection he has with the Ninevites that makes him sad when he thinks of destroying them. His compassion is his showing pity simply because he wants to show pity. For whatever reason, relenting from calamity and showing pity to Nineveh better served God’s purposes than destroying them would have.

So yes, God is gracious and compassionate. Compassion is indeed part of God’s perfect moral character. He does relent concerning calamity and show pity to people who do not deserve it. However, compassion is not an emotion that he expresses when he feels bad for people. It is not a behavior he engages in because of an emotional connection he has with the people to whom he shows compassion. God shows compassion for one ultimate reason. That reason is to display an aspect of his perfect moral character. The amazing thing is that we get to benefit from this display. Not only do we get to see his character but we are also very often the recipients of this compassion. For this, I praise God and thank him for who he is.

–J Bolt

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