Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are those who long for Him. Isaiah 30:18
Compassion – When you think about compassion, do you imagine a tender and protective love? Do you think about your love for your children and your spouse? Do you picture merciful acts? You might be surprised to know that there is an amazing difference between the biblical idea of compassion and love. If you look deep enough, you will discover something critically important about the way you treat others.
Most of the forty-nine occurrences of the Hebrew word racham (to have compassion) describe God as the actor. Isaiah’s verse is no exception. God longs to show His compassion towards us. Psalm 103:13 and Proverbs 28:13 tell us that God has a special place in His heart for two kinds of people: those who fear Him, and those who confess and forsake their sins. The intensity of this deep emotion is underlined by the fact that this word is also the word for the womb. Nothing draws deeper on human emotion than the helplessness of an unborn child, so it’s not surprising at all that compassion, mercy and intense affection is associated with the womb. What is surprising is that racham is never conjoined with the Hebrew word for love, ahav.
Gerhard Wallis made the observation years ago that ahav never appears in parallel with racham. Wallis concludes that the Hebrew concept of love has an entirely different meaning than we find in the ideas of compassion and affection. Furthermore, as we learned from the exclusive use of agape for ahav, the Hebrew concept of love is also not translated in terms of friendship (phileo) or desire (eros). All of this helps us distinguish what love really means from a Hebrew perspective. What we find is this:
- The concept of love expressed in ahav is focused on community. It is about love for neighbor, stranger, countryman and enemy. The context of understanding what it means to love is found in my treatment of others, not in my feelings or emotions.
- When ahav is used to describe my relationship with God, the focus is on the total commitment of my entire person. In other words, love is a verb of action. It is “strikingly pragmatic.” In fact, love that does not produce benevolent behavior is sin.
- Since love is essentially an inner resolve displayed in outward action, the principal characteristic of biblical love is faithfulness. When it comes to loving God, this means obedience. When it comes to loving another person, this means nurturing fidelity.
- From a biblical point of view, love does not stand on a foundation of emotions but rather on a foundation of ethical responsibility. Love demands specific boundaries for behavior. Love is not about being free. It is about acting within the confines of what it means to be faithful, trustworthy and reliable.
- In community, an act of love is an expression of justice. What is not just, is not loving.
What is love? Try this definition on for size: love is what delights God and blesses others. Both elements seem to be necessary. Attitude and action are married in benevolence, often with personal cost. Ask yourself if you are experiencing and exhibiting biblical love. If you are, then God is smiling and someone else is being blessed, even if you are paying the freight.
And what about compassion? Why is compassion never used in connection with love? Because compassion is rooted in the idea of creating a fence around the chaos in another person’s life, while love is essentially exhibiting the character of God in community. Compassion acts on behalf of another simply because there is a need. Love lifts compassion to a higher dimension because love takes the place of the one in need.
Are you compassionate? Good. Now lift your compassion to the level of love. Take the place of the thief who hangs on a cross.
Topical Index: Love