The Compassionate and Gracious God

God's graciousness is a direct response to our neediness, not our moral excellence.

Scripture References & Transcript

A w Tozer wrote, what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. If we get this right, virtually everything could be going wrong in our life and we have hope, we have joy, we have a wonderful presence with which to face it. If we get this wrong, just about everything else in your life can go right and it’s going to collapse. And you lack a future and you lack a hope. It is indeed true that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us as a pastor. One of the things that breaks my heart is IP see people rejecting God, but they’re not really rejecting God as he is. They’re rejecting a misunderstanding of God or a lie about God or who someone has told them God is. And so they’re missing out on the most wonderful experience of all, but it’s all a lie.

And so let me ask you this morning, what do you think about God? If you were standing in the park when we sent our cameras and microphones, give us three words to describe God, what would’ve come out of your mouth? And then a second question that is just as important, why do you think that? Where did you get your understanding of who God is? We’re entering a new series on Exodus 34 that I am very excited about. In part, my wife pitched the idea to the team and they bought it. Uh, but it’s gonna be a wonderful understanding, several weeks of understanding who God is by letting God tell us who he is. Exodus 34, 6 through seven is repeated dozens of times throughout the Old Testament, one of the most repeated phrases in the entire Bible, where God out of his graciousness decides to tell us who he is.

If you would stand, I’d like us to read this to together, we’ll do this again next week. It’d be a great thing as a family to memorize this verse as we live in it for the coming weeks. Please read this with me. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming 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. Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us this word. And now I pray that you would give us your spirit to help us understand this, that it would shape our minds and our hearts and our view of you that you would shatter the lies and the illusions and invite us into a new life living in relation with you as you truly are. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. You can be seated.

We’re gonna go verse or word by word through this passage this week. We’re focusing on compassionate and gracious. I’ll be back next week. We’re gonna talk about God as slow to anger and abounding in love. But as we talk about compassionate and gracious, I wanna mention my debt to John Mark Comer, who’s written an incredible book. God has a name, I think he’s about seven or eight years old. The whole book is on the passage that we’re studying. When I’m preparing a sermon, I’ll read 10 to 12 books as I did for this one. But this book really provided something I thought, creative thinking and illustrations. And I just want to acknowledge my debt and say I’ve asked Wild Blue to have some copies, which they’re available if they’re out after the first two services, you can grab this one or we’ll get more next week.

But it’d be a great thing to go through as we’re going through this series. So let’s talk about compassionate and gracious, those. It’s a word pairing in Hebrew. It’s it’s creative the way it happens where compassionate colors, gracious and gracious, comes back and helps us understand what compassionate means together because it’s, it’s together that they have such a powerful truth. In the Hebrew, it’s called Rahm. We hannan. Rahm, we none. So let’s look first at Rahm compassionate. Dr. Douglas Stewart defines it this way. He genuinely cares about humans and holds toward them a tender attitude of grace and mercy. I wanna stress this last part, the last time you’ve asked yourself, what does God think about me? When you wake up, when you go to sleep, when you’re just wondering what, what, what’s God’s opinion of me is the first thing that comes to mind. The first thing that God wants to reveal to you that his attitude toward you is one of tender grace and mercy rah whom is used in the Old Testament, only of God, except perhaps in one circumstance where it’s used as a comparison.

We see that in Psalm 1 0 3, 13 as a father has compassion, rah whom on his children. So the Lord has compassion, rah whom on those who fear them. So there’s a way where a father’s compassion can kind of shadow god’s. But throughout scripture, it’s clear that only God has the kind of compassion is being talked about here. Because in Isaiah is compared to a mother’s compassion. 49 verse 15, can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she is born, though she may forget, I will not forget you imagine the most loving, nurturing, strong, wise mother you could ever think of. Now imagine the Father in the best sense of the word, supportive, encouraging, strong. And God is saying, that’s how I am toward you. He wants us to think this is how we should think of him. And remember how Jesus carried this on when he taught us to pray, what did he say we should do to address him?

Our Father who art in heaven? So the layers of scripture, God is making it very clear, you wanna know how I am toward you? Think of the best mother, the best father. That’s how you should think of me. Now, this is difficult for some because maybe you didn’t have good parents. I had wonderful parents. But if you’re stumbling on that, imagine how you feel toward your kids and know that God is at times 10. Before my first daughter was born theologically, I was actually a pacifist. If you know what that means. I’d studied under Anabaptist professor in college where Christians can’t be a part of any violence. The military or police, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and that’s just not for Christians. And I took these absolutist statements without thinking and studied under ’em and thought, that’s probably where I need to go.

But my whole pacifist leanings were completely obliterated in March of 1987. And it’s not because I read a new book or heard a new sermon or listened to a new lecture. The only thing that happened was this nurse heard this new bundle of a baby girl are first born and put her in my arms. And I looked at this child I had just met and I knew if anybody tried to hurt this girl, I’ll be doing prison ministry from the inside for the rest of my life. It’s that natural fatherly compassion I will lay down my life. I will do what I have to do to protect this girl. And God wants us to think that’s exactly his attitude toward us. I want you to get this God by His nature is predisposed to be tender toward you, to be kind to you. And he wants to forgive you.

You don’t have to crawl over glass or mentally beat yourself up to make yourself feel miserable and maybe through your suffering when God’s favor. ’cause we serve a God where forgiveness isn’t based on what you do. Forgiveness is based on who God is. It’s a whole different way of looking at him. It means He will never give up on you, though you resist him. He will chase after you. He will make you miserable. He might let you feel the consequences of your actions. But it’s as a father is disciplining his child, he is seeking to win you back. And again, except for that one exception in the Psalms rah, whom is used only of God in the Old Testament, this attitude, it’s godlike. A mother or a father may occasionally shadow Rahm. They might experience it a little bit here or there only. God always feels this way.

Only God feels it to the full experience. God owns raum. The second word is gracious. In Hebrew Hannan, Dr. Douglas Stewart says this, he does things for people they do not deserve and goes beyond what might be expected to grant truly kind favor toward people, favor of which they are not necessarily worthy. I love this by Dr. Edwin Yamauchi. The verb depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need, something to give to one who has a need. How I wish I knew this when I was a teenager or even in my twenties. I still wanted to follow God and I would beg him. I knew I would mess up God, don’t let go of me. How many times I cried to Keith Green’s famous song, I don’t wanna fall away from you and I’ll try harder. God, I’ll do this.

But what this tells me is that God isn’t moved by my moral excellence. It’s not my old obedience that draws me to him. He’s motivated by my neediness. When I confess I can only have you, I’m I’m helpless on my own. That’s what elicits his compassion and his graciousness. Christianity is all about God telling us, recognize your poverty and receive my riches. Your moral excellence, your goodness will never impress God. But your cries for mercy stir to action. Does that though change the way you look at God. Maxie Dunning tells of two middle aged women that were going to get their photographs taken. They wanted these nice portraits so they had gotten their hair done and their makeup done in the right clothes and they’re at the photographer. And this one woman really wanted a great portrait. And so she’s worried about where the lighting will be and how she’ll sit and what angle.

And just as a photographer is about to start to take her picture. She says in very strict tones, now do me justice. And her friend slightly wiser said, my dear, you don’t want justice. You want mercy <laugh>. That’s how it will be for all of us before God. As he’s taking our picture in the light where nothing can be hidden, we won’t be crying for justice, we’ll be crying for mercy. And God has mercy tos spare ra, whom is the feeling word. Think of the best parent in the best sense of the word. That’s how God feels toward us. And Hannan is the action word. God doesn’t just feel he’s capable and eager to act on our behalf. In other words, this relationship with God means God care for me, rah whom by protecting me. Hannan, the two go together. And when you start to relate to this God and you understand who he really is, the biggest heartaches of life are overcome by the most amazing God you could imagine.

Robert Morgan talks about his mom who lost her husband after 60 years of marriage. At first she felt haunted and lonely. Bed was a terrible place to think about. It was just empty. But in finding refuge in the God of Rahul and Hanan, she gradually grew into widowhood where she wasn’t just surviving it, she was thriving in it. Because though she had lost a husband, she gained new insight into the God she worshiped. This is what she told her son. And it made his day. I’ve adjusted nicely to the single life for I’ve never been so sure I’m not alone. The Lord and I talk together all day. When I wake up in the morning, he’s waiting to greet me. And when I go to bed at night, he stays up and stands guard. She knows Rah, he cares for me. She knows Hannan. So he will protect me like Rahim.

Hannan only refers to God in the Old Testament. Why no one else captures it like God has. These are divine traits. And what does that tell us today? If you’re here or if you’re watching online, what it means is no one can care for you or protect you or be there for you like God can. You might go through a dozen romantic partners, please love me. Like I wanna be loved. You might still be angry that your parents didn’t live up to what you thought. A parent should be frustrated with your kids or your friends betrayed you. Is is there no one who will be there for me? And and God says, yes it it is me. You’ll only find this kind of compassion. You’ll only find this kind of graciousness in Yahweh, the God of scripture. Now I gotta stress, this was revolutionary at the time.

It was written when Moses went up to Mount Sinai, gods were seen as angry. They needed to be appeased. That’s why it was human sacrifice throughout the world which God hated. In fact, John Mark pointed this out. I never made the connection that the account of the Trojan War was written about the same time that Mount Sinai, that that Moses went up to Mount Sinai. So think about these. At the same time in history, these two completely competing worldviews, Moses is going up to Mount Sinai to receive from God the revelation of who God really is. And then you’ve got the whole Trojan War going on with all the Greek gods for familiar with that. King Nan was eager to cross a Mediterranean to go to war. The soldiers were all decked out. The ships were packed, but there was no wind back then. There’s no wind. You don’t sail. If you can’t sail, you can’t fight. And he was so frustrated until a priest of Artemis, the goddess of Greece, came to him and explained that she was angry at Nan because he had killed a sacred deer in a sacred forest. And she was angry. You killed something that matters to me and to please me, you must kill something that matters to you.

<inaudible> knew what those gods or goddesses wanted and he took his oldest daughter ifgenia before a statue of Artemis. He split her throat and immediately the story goes, the winds began to blow. This is opposite the Christian faith. Instead of God saying, you must kill your children, for me, God says, I will send my son to die for you. And it’s just what’s so amazing to me, this compassion and this graciousness. I I’ve mentioned my love for my kids and my grandkids. I could imagine dying for one of them, but if someone were to come to me, you’ve never met this person. But for this person to be okay, your son must die at your hand. I’m like, not a chance. Don’t wait. I, there’s no universe where that happens. But that’s the God we serve. That’s where Rah, whom and Hanan find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

At this day and age, we can look forward and realize God knew we were guilty. His wrath is real. Kurt will talk about that at the end of the series. But God has found a way, even in the face of God’s righteous wrath, to send his son and out of his compassion and mercy find a way even in our rebellion to win us back. But that affects how we look at the God of the Old Testament. Jesus isn’t the opposite of the God of the Old Testament. He’s the embodiment. When God declares himself a compassionate and gracious God for that to be true, it was all but inevitable that Jesus would come to display what that compassion and graciousness means. And I stress this because this phrase that we read and hopefully that we will memorize, it’s like a songs refrain throughout all of the Old Testament.

It keeps coming back and coming back and coming back. And in earlier version, I would’ve read you a dozen instances. ’cause I think it’s powerful when you see how it’s so repeated. But we just don’t have time for that. So let me give you just a few samples from Psalm 86 15, but you Lord are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness in Joel two 13, return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. In Nehemiah nine 17, Nehemiah reads the history of Israel through the character of God. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. God miraculously delivers Israel from slavery. And they don’t have to fight, but they get upset and they say, let’s go back to slavery.

And in saying that, let’s go back to the gods of Egypt, how angry God must have been. But he didn’t destroy him. In the desert, we’re told this but you, you’re a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate. So slow to anger, so abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them. What Israel did, didn’t negate who God is. And if you’re here, you can’t believe you’re here thinking of what you’ve done or you’re holding on to what you’ve done and you’re listening and you’re seeing that God can forgive even you if you will turn. It is his nature to forgive you.

All the characters of the Old Testament, I know the Old Testament, God is seen as an angry God. But when you talk to people or listen to people I should say, who lived in the Old Testament, they were convinced that God is compassionate and gracious as it says so often through the scriptures. Consider the life of Jonah. He was told many of you know the story to go to Nineveh and call them to repentance. And Jonah went the opposite direction. Why he hated the Ninevites Assyria that Nineveh was a part of was Israel’s worst enemy at the time. And it wasn’t just that they, they were at odds with each other. Ninevites were godless, they were blood thirsty. They were terrible evil people. He wanted God to destroy him. He didn’t want them to be forgiven. In fact, archeologists have rather recently uncovered some writings from the kings of Nineveh who in their own words, tell us how evil they were.

King shall him answer. II uh, Jim, cover your kids’ ears. The young kids distract him. This gets really gross. Thank you. He he, he created a pyramid of skulls in front of a city. He conquered to block the gates. And then when he had enough skulls, he burned alive. The young men and women who were left saying This city will never rise again. His son, Sakib was so frustrated with the king that he defeated. He had him skinned alive and pinned the skin up on the wall to say, thus will happen to anybody who opposes me. And so his descendants, whereas dehumanizing and cruel, one of them said this, this is from his journal. I pierced his chin, he’s referring to a conquered king. I pierced his chin with my keen andeer through his jaw. I passed a rope, put a dog chain upon him and made him occupy a kennel.

Now you think you’re a king. No, you are my pet. A kind of dehumanizing thing. You can uncover your kids’ ears Now we’re glad to have ’em in here. I’m sorry. Just wanted to make the case why Jonah so didn’t want them to repent, but God creatively brought ’em back. And so Jonah gave up and said fine. His whole sermon going through Nineveh was in 40 days, God will bring his judgment on Nineveh. Literally it 40 days and God’s judgment and destruction is coming to Nineveh. There were no emotional appeals come on people, no stories where he could bring him in. It was just, I gotta say this, I’m saying it. And it was all it took. They were so evil. They knew they were evil. They knew they deserved judgment and they repented. And here’s the thing, Jonah was so ticked off but not surprised.

I wanna stress that he was so angry, but he was not surprised. He knew that’s what God would do because he knew who God is. Look at Jonah four, two. I knew you’re a gracious and compassionate God. He probably wanted to swear slow to anger and abounding in love. This is just who you are, isn’t it? God, I know this is the way you are. You would forgive even them. That’s how they looked at it in the Old Testament. Because they knew two things in the Old Testament. We live in a sick, cruel, violent, and twisted world. In Yahweh is a gracious and compassionate God. Slow to anger and abounding in love. That’s who he is. But we don’t define God by his own autobiography. We like to define him by other things. One of the first things we define him by today is our own experience.

God is good if he does what I want him to do, if he heals everybody that I ask him to heal. So our definition of God is God is the one who does everything I want him to do. Not just for me, but for everyone I care about. God is defined as good. Goodbye. How often he does what I want him to do. I’ll call you good if you always agree with me. Now I know we have some older Christians here so you can help us all out. Would you please raise your hand if you’ve walked with the Lord for a while and you are really glad he hasn’t answered all of your prayers. See, some people are laughing thinking, man, my life would be a mess if God answered every one of my prayers.

Your life could be wrecked. So knowing that God is compassionate and gracious doesn’t define it by our experience, we, we define him by his nature and it changes the way we pray. Let me ask you how. How would you pray for a mom is I must pray for mine. Who tells me every time I visit every day, she doesn’t wanna live a day longer than my father. She makes it clear to us every time I’m here, as long as my fa, your husband, your father, my husband is here, I don’t wanna live a day longer. And it’s, it’s been a repeated refrain. Now she is 89 in great health, mentally and physically. You look at her, she hasn’t skipped a beat. My dad had a stroke a few years back. He fell and broke his hip last year. And you all know people that age what, what that can do. I’m trying to be her son and her pastor. Mom. It may not be your call. Nope, absolutely not. In fact, my wife and I were there about a month ago and three times in four days she reminded us we have do not resuscitate orders right outside our door. Because if my dad goes, she wants to go. And if we let an EMT so much as give her an aspirin, she would be so angry with us.

So I go through that and then a week or two after we leave, I get a call from my sister Gary mom and dad, 95 89 have just gotten COVID for the first time they’ve tested positive. How do you pray? Of course I pray for their healing. I want ’em to be here as long as God will allow ’em. But I pray differently. I lift them up. God, you are compassionate and gracious God. And I lift my mom and dad to and I pray you will heal them. We still want them to be here as long as you allow them. You know what’s going on with my mom. You know her days. You know my dad’s days. I put ’em up to you together. Would you please care for them, heal them and do your will because I know you are compassionate and gracious. Now, God answered that prayer.

They’re still here. They’re virus free. But the big difference for me in that prayer is I didn’t pray with desperation. I didn’t pray with anger. I didn’t pray with fear. I left prayer encouraged and trustful. If thankful. If we get to pray to such a compassionate and gracious God, we’re so blessed. The second thing we define God by is not our experience but our likes. Dr. Scott McKnight teaches New Testament in Chicago and he gives his students that come into New Testament classes a survey, what do you like? What do you prefer? What do you think is most important? Those kinds of questions. Later he gives him a survey, exact same questions but about Jesus. What’s Jesus like? What are his priorities? What does he prefer? And he said, 90% of the time the answers are identical. These students think Jesus is like them. These students think if, if they think the environment is the most important issue. Jesus thinks the environment is the most important issue. If they think tolerance is the crucial virtue, Jesus thinks tolerance is the crucial virtue. They’re creating God in their own image. They’re worshiping themselves.

And how much joy do you think there is in in worshiping? You see, when I read this passage, it reminds me how unlike me God is rah whom and Hanan are gods and Gods alone. I will never have his compassion. I will never have His gracious. I can see it, I can feel it, but but I won’t live in it as God. As God is so unlike me. And it enriches my worship and my appreciation because I don’t wanna worship myself. I wanna worship God as he really is. The third way we often define God isn’t just our experience or our likes, it’s our ignorance. Now this may feel like a rabbit trail, but please hang with me toward the end here because one of the things that that especially the new atheist like to use to undercut God as compassionate and gracious is the presence of evil.

God can’t be compassionate and gracious because there’s evil in the world. Either he’s not good or he is not all powerful, but they’re defining God by their own ignorance. And it comes out of their worldview. It’s a materialistic worldview, which means the only thing that’s real is what you can touch and see and feel. And they think there’s nothing else. They’re ignorant of the entire biblical worldview that while there is a material world, there is also a spiritual world. Things you can’t see, but real spiritual beings that are trying to influence this world. There is the Holy Spirit that wants to bring love and God’s kingdom, but they’re also evil spirits. They can’t do anything ’cause they don’t have physical bodies. But they can inflame our anger or hatreds our lusts, our prejudice, and do great evil through us. Paul talks about this in Ephesians six 12.

Our struggle, he says, is not against, read these next three words with me, flesh and blood. ’cause that’s not what’s going on. It’s against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. I mean the enlightened west, we don’t like to talk about this, but some of you like me, have been in places where you’re forced to confront it. Over 20 years ago, I was invited to minister in Japan. Had a great first week there. I mean, I love the country. It was so peaceful and beautiful. I love the culture and the character and I just, my soul had been filled up. And so I’m thinking that’s all of Japan. And then sort of as a break, my host took me a week later to a beautiful woodland area where I look at it normally, think that’s where I would love to pray. But it was a part of a Shinto shrine.

I took one step out of the car and it wasn’t audible. It might as well have been. It was a, you are not welcome here, go away. And I, I didn’t really know the worldview that what to get out of here normally. I think this is a great place to spend a lot of time and to pray. But it was no go doing a little more study. These spiritual forces can be connected to places. Have you ever felt it in a place? Daniel was told by an angel that he was delayed. The angel was in coming to Daniel’s aid because the angel said he was fighting the Prince of Persian. Not a real prince, not a physical prince. He was real, but not physical. It was a spiritual reality. He said, and then when I leave you, I’ve gotta go do battle against the king or the prince of grace.

Now, us Christians have no reason to fear these spiritual forces that are malignant. It is a sin to fear them because Jesus has defeated them. Thank you Jesus. Colossians two 15. And Jesus having disarmed the powers and authorities made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross. And Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 10 19, I have given you authority to overcome the power of the enemy. So Jesus has defeated them and given us the authority to overcome ’em. So if we surrender to God and we receive the Holy Spirit, he said, I’m remaking the world so that you’ll be motivated by compassion and kindness and love and gentleness and forgiveness.

But to reject God’s holy Spirit is to open up our souls to the malignant spirits listed in Colossians as anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying. They can’t do anything but through us Jesus has disarmed them. But if we don’t bring in Jesus, we can be subject to them. Why is there evil in this world when God has defeated evil and given us the opportunity to live for good? Because we cooperate with evil. Evil is our fault, not Gods. He made provision for it. So how? How do you define God today? Has it been through your experience? God’s been good to me. So I think he’s good. God hasn’t answered my prayers on the jury’s out. Is it through your likes? God must be this way. ’cause that’s the kind of God I I want.

Or ignorance. I don’t wanna serve him. So I’m gonna make up these arguments against him. Will you this week and in the weeks forward, start to define God as he defines himself. He knows himself in a way that we don’t. And when we do that, it will change our prayers. It will change our, no longer do I pray, God, you gotta do this. You, you, you, I, you owe me. I’ve served you. Or God, I’ve tried so hard or I’m asking for a favor. I’m not ever asking for what I deserve from God because I don’t come out good on that. I’m asking for his mercy. God, I pray to you because you are a compassionate and gracious God. It is your nature. That’s where I make my appeal. DL Moody tells of a little girl who did just that. She had just become an orphan.

This is in the 19th century where kids could become orphans a lot more than they do now. So imagine this little grade school girl. She lost her dad. She lost her mom. She’s in a new home. She didn’t know these people. They were strangers to her. She didn’t know how they would care for him, but she was so brave. She goes into the home and the first night she asks her new mom, can I pray to God as my mother taught me to pray? She said, of course. And so she prayed this wonderful prayer that her mother had taught her to pray. And then she added on something spontaneous. Dear God, please make these people as kind to me as mother and Father were.

And then they watched astonished as she lifted her head toward heaven and said, of course you will. Of course you, I don’t have to convince you. My mother taught me who you are. I don’t think she knew the Hebrew words, rah and Hannan, but she knew the God who is rah, whom and Hannan, she didn’t have to coerce him. He cared for her and he would protect her. A w tozer. What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. It will define your days and change your mindset. We heard what they think God is. Who do you think God is? Let’s pray.

Father, I pray that your Spirit would shatter the lies. You would shine your light in the dark places. People who have believed lies about you or have had resentments about you. God, would you just open up the door so they could see the light even now and understand they had no idea how beautiful, how wonderful you are. And Lord, we’re just getting started. Let us receive you. There’s someone here that doesn’t know you. I pray they would be compelled by the beauty of who you are to go to Trailhead, to ask for prayer and some who have thought they knew you Lord, but have just been frustrated with you. Bring healing, I pray. Bring new understanding. Father, as we look at this verses, these verses throughout the week, just give us a new understanding of who you are. Reveal yourself to us, we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Amen.