Dr. Carissa Quinn • August 31, 2020
Our picture of what God is like is one of the most important things we can develop throughout our lives. Where is God in our suffering? What is his disposition when we fail? How does he view us? These questions have a huge impact on how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us—and they all depend on the character of God.
How God Describes His Character
In the Bible, one passage stands high above the rest in terms of its importance to the biblical authors—Exodus 34:6-7 [6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”] It’s the most quoted and reused passage of Scripture within Scripture, which tells us that the authors thought these verses were highly significant. And this makes sense—these verses are the first place where God himself describes what he is like. Like many of us, the biblical authors seem concerned with developing a robust and clear picture of God.
In this story, God has just freed his people Israel from their oppression in Egypt. He split open the Red Sea and is leading them in a fiery pillar of cloud through the wilderness to the promised land. He appears before them in a great cloud and with fire at Mount Sinai, and then he calls Moses up to speak to him. While Moses is up on the mountain, the people grow impatient and waver in their allegiance to Yahweh and Moses. They decide to do things their own way and make a golden calf to worship, saying it was this god who led them out of Egypt.
When God sees what they have done, he is angered. He contemplates handing his people over to their own desires and no longer leading them as their God. At this, Moses intercedes for the people, reminding Yahweh of his covenant with Abraham to be Israel’s God and calling him to remain faithful to his own character. It is in response to the sin of the people and to the intercession of Moses that God reveals his name to Moses. He says:
“Yahweh, Yahweh, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, overflowing with loyal-love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
This is God’s answer to Israel’s sin: he will continue to show compassion and grace to his people. He will continue to be patient with them (slow to anger), and will maintain his covenant love and the faithfulness he promised to their fathers. This is an incredibly gracious response to an incredibly deep betrayal.
A God Deeply Moved
It’s interesting that the very first word God uses in this description of himself is “compassionate.” One of the most significant things about this word is that it is an emotional word. Some people get uncomfortable when they think about God as an emotional being. Emotional people seem ever-changing and flippant. How can we depend on a God who feels and potentially has feelings that change? Yet this is how he is portrayed in Scripture—as a being who has real responses to and experiences with his creation.
Let’s look at this Hebrew word and the connotations it carries. The word “compassion” in Hebrew is rakhum, and it is related to the word “womb,” or rekhem. The word itself conveys the emotion and nurture that a mother has for her vulnerable child. This relationship to the word womb also gives us a sense that compassion originates in the core of a person—a gut instinct or something that you feel in your inner being.
Like the root of the word compassion, the context this word occurs in draws out this nurturing emotion. The word can be translated as “deeply moved,” like when Joseph weeps before his brothers. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers but later elevated to a position of power in Egypt. His brothers eventually appear before him and beg for help. They think Joseph is dead, so they don’t recognize him, but he knows who they are and is overcome with compassion as he weeps. But compassion isn’t only an emotion; it also motivates action. Joseph is so moved that he reveals himself to his brothers and then rescues them from starvation. Compassion is a deep feeling that compels someone to act for another’s good.
Around eighty percent of the time, the word compassion is used to describe God. What’s really interesting is that this word often portrays God as a parent who deeply cares for his children. Compassion is the response God has when he hears his people cry out to him, much like a mother responds to the cries of her infant. For example, Nehemiah recounts for the people the time of the judges, a brutal and violent time in Israel’s history when everyone just did whatever they wanted. This is Nehemiah’s prayer to God:
“Therefore you delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them, but when they cried to you in the time of their distress, you heard from heaven, and according to your great compassion you gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors. But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before you; therefore you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies….When they cried again to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you rescued them according to your compassion.” (Nehemiah 9:27-28)
God is moved by the cries and distress of his people. Every single time. He answers every single time! Notice that the picture of the people here is really negative—they abandon God over and over “as soon as they have rest.” But God’s emotional bond with his people compels him to respond, much like a parent to a child’s cries.
The Love of a Parent
God is depicted as a parent multiple times in Scripture and in incredible ways! For example, in Isaiah 49:15-16, God is depicted as a nursing mother who is constantly attentive to and thoughtful about her infant. In this passage, Isaiah is prophesying to Israel during a time of oppression and suffering. God promises that he’ll comfort his people and have compassion on them. But the anticipated response of his people is that they’ll say, “Yahweh has forsaken us and forgotten us.” Here is God’s response:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even if she forgets, I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
This is a really powerful image of the bond between God and his people, portrayed by depicting God as a mother. God is portrayed as a parent elsewhere in Scripture too. Israel, called Ephraim here, is grieving over their rebellion against Yahweh. Here’s what God says:
“‘Is Ephraim not my dear son? The child in whom I delight? Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him; therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have compassion on him,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:20)
The “yearning of the heart” is used here with compassion to describe the deep emotion God feels for his hurting people.
Psalm 103 is an amazing reflection of God’s character as revealed in Exodus 34 to Moses. And here, God is portrayed as a compassionate father.
“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13)
So yes. God is emotional, but he’s not capricious or moody or dramatic. He’s emotional in the best way—like a parent who is deeply bonded to their child. And he is consistent in his emotion. When God’s children cry out, he responds. He feels a deep compassion for his people when they are in pain.
Emotions We Can Trust
What does this mean for us practically? We can trust God to be who he says he is—a compassionate parent—even when we’re not perfect or good. God’s compassion means that he is always turned toward us, like a good parent. We can know his disposition when we cry out to him, even if we’ve turned away or are struggling. Because of his compassion, he always responds to the cries of his children. He is a God who cares deeply, emotionally, and consistently, like a loving parent.
Carissa Quinn holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from Gateway Seminary in Los Angeles, CA. She also holds an MA in Teaching and enjoys studying how people learn and grow. She combines her love for biblical studies and education as BibleProject’s Digital Learning Manager.