Triune Compassion

From one angle, the storyline of Scripture is a story of grief. We are born into grief, grief is not something we only enter into when a loved one dies, it is what we enter into at birth. Grief is always linked to loss—consider then the magnitude of humanity’s loss. We are born east of Eden, separated from God, alienated from others, enslaved to our sin, and heading to hell.

After the fall we know vertical and horizontal, internal and external fragmentation. We have lost so much. We may not be able to articulate the heaviness of living in a cursed world, but we feel it. WE ARE GRIEVING.

Pain is humanity’s common ground—it is the air we breathe. Sorrow is the norm, loss the expectation, suffering the status quo. All creation groans, it quakes, it grieves under the weight of sorrow and the pain of sin. The ache for redemption is almost audible.

The sorrow of this world runs deep. It is like the depths of the ocean…when you press down into it, it is a vast, rugged world all its own. A sorrow, that without Christ would know no end—an eternal grief, an everlasting loss, an existence without hope and without comfort for all eternity.

Into this heavy darkness enters the God of all compassion. When Paul considers the compassion of God he breaks forth into praise. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the compassionate father and God of all comfort!” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Blessed be the Triune God who does not leave us languishing in sorrow, but engages this world of pain with fierce compassion and mighty gentleness.

God engages us with compassion and comfort that reaches the very the depths of the sorrow this world knows—He gets up underneath it, shoulders it and provides the redeeming comfort humanity needs. The Triune God of the universe is compassionate: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Compassionate Heart of the Father

When the Father opens his mouth to speak of his heart, what comes out? “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). Compassion is the first word that comes out of his mouth.

The Old Testament is filled with references to the compassionate and comforting presence of God to his hurting people. “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)—this is the consistent and steady message of God “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

The classic story of the Prodigal Son is a window into the heart of the Father. The story mentions says that when the son was far off the father saw him and “had compassion on him” (Luke 15:20). He rose to his feet, ran to him and embraced him. This was unheard of for a father in the first century context. Compassion compelled the Father to run to the hurting and lost.

 The Compassionate Wounds of the Son

Compassion comes walking in the incarnation. In Jesus, we see what compassion looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. B.B. Warfield wrote a book titled, The Emotional Life of our Lord. In it, he explores all the emotions we witness in the life of Jesus. He makes an important point, the emotion most often expressed by Jesus was compassion. The word used to describe “compassion” speaks literally of a sensation in the guts. To engage with compassion is to engage a suffering world from the gut.

Jesus was moved by compassion when he encountered these various situations.

  • A man with leprosy (Mk 1:41)
  • The death of a widow’s son (Lk 7:13)
  • Two blind men (Matt 20:34)
  • Hungry crowds (Matt 15:32, Mk 8:2)
  • A demon possessed boy (Mk 9:22)
  • Harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)

This examples show that Jesus was moved by compassion when encountering bodily ailments, individuals who were outcasts, death and loss, individuals assaulted by satan and his cohorts, physical needs, and spiritual lostness.

In Jesus, we see compassion. It looks like a tear stained face that aches over death. It tastes like fire-seared fish in the mouth of men who had disowned him days earlier. It smells like broken bread and poured out wine. It sounds like a Roman hammer pounding nails into flesh and a rock rolling away from a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus shows us compassion. He shows us that compassion…

  • is a posture that refuses to back down from pain
  • does not hide from suffering
  • runs head long into the sorrow of others
  • does not deny, minimize, or numb pain—it shoulders it
  • is not a mere emotion, it is a posture, a way of being in the world
  • is love when it meets pain

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

This truth about Jesus has been deeply life-giving…and to be honest has kept my faith intact on many occasions. This world desperately needs a compassionate God—a God with a tear stained face, a man of Sorrows, a God with dirty feet, and bloody hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right, “Only a Suffering God Can Help,” and He has!

The Compassionate Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter—compassion is integral to his character and activity. He comes to bring the comfort of Christ. It is his role to communicate the compassion of God through Christ to us.

He is deeply compassionate as he enters into our sufferings with the comfort of God, shares our pain and journeys with us through every hardship we face. If we have trusted Christ, we have never walked through anything without him. Since he took up residence within us, he has known our every grief. The pain beyond words, that hurt outside the scope of speech, He knows, He understands, He groans over, and He communicates about it to the Father for you. Where would we be without Him!

The Triune God engages in our sorrow, he brings us comfort through his gospel. He does not take away our pain…he walks with us in it, serves us, loves us and enables us to persevere through it. This is the movement of the Triune God toward the world—a costly compassion that brings comfort to a ruptured world. Blessed be this great God!

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What Makes a Theologian

Oswald Bayer wrote a fine book titled Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. In this book he summarizes Luther’s thinking on what makes a theologian and what rules should govern the theologian. Luther argued that a theologian is made through six things.

  1. The grace that is worked through the Holy Spirit
  2. The agonizing struggle
  3. Experience
  4. Opportunity
  5. Constant, concentrated textual study
  6. Knowledge and practice of the academic disciplines

Luther goes on to say that three rules should govern the life and task of the theologian.

  1. Prayer
  2. Meditation
  3. Agonizing Struggle

I love the intersection of experience, suffering and study in Luther’s thought on the development of a theologian. It takes more than books and a degree to make a solid theologian. As the quote goes, “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

One must know the roaring of a condemning conscience and the silencing power of the gospel to bring the good news home to others. One must know the power of the old man, the agony of daily repentance and the sweetness of forgiveness to instruct others in the fray.

The theologian has to know both sides of a theological concept: the objective and subjective. It is not enough to know about the love of God in Christ. By the Spirit he must know what it is to be loved by God in Christ. The theologian must be desperate, humble and dependent. Prayer, meditation and trust in the Holy Spirit are critical elements of theological development and maturity.

The theologian understands the tension that Luther touches here. God alone makes a good theologian and yet the theologian is responsible to study, pray, meditate and agonize. He must hoist the sails and position the mast, all the while trusting that the wind of God will blow on him.

Theologians are limping men and women—men and women who have grappled with God, have been destroyed and been made new. They are people who know the sweetness of the gospel because they know the depths of sin and judgment. They are people who know the landscape of God’s word intellectually and experientially. They are people that know God and you know it when you engage them. God, make me one of these.

Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio

In John Doberstein’s The Minister’s Prayerbook, he discusses Martin Luther’s understanding of the development of a theologian. Luther believed that the “right way to study theology” is anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. For Luther “Everything centers around the practice of meditation, for prayer prepares for it and its results are confirmed in the experience of conflict. For Luther, meditation is the key to the study of theology. No one can become a true theologian unless he learns theology through it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 142). The discussion that follows is taken directly from Doberstein and explores each of the three dimensions.

  • Oratio (prayer) is grounded in the Word of the Lord. Prayer is the voice of faith. That is to say, that prayer grows out of the Word of the Lord. “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms, 15). Prayer is “responding speech” (Peterson, 5). “Prayer escapes the danger of disorder and confusion only when it is enkindled by the words of Scripture. From the Word proceeds its inner justification, as well as its life-giving power and the clearness of its petitions. A prayer that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love and will finally die” (Koeberele, 176-177).
  • Meditatio (meditation) is the continual study of the Scriptures. In 1518, Luther wrote “You should not only meditate inwardly in your heart but also outwardly by repeating the words out aloud and rubbing at the written word (like a sweet-smelling herb), by reading and rereading it, carefully, attentively and reflectively, to gather what the Holy Spirit means by them” (quoted in Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”). Meditatio is grounded in the externum verbum. Luther: “Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook…and their entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments” (AE 3:275). Luther likened meditation to a cow chewing its cud. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1of 1525, he writes: “To chew the cud, however, is to take up the Word with delight and meditate with supreme diligence, so that (according to the proverb) one does not permit it to go into one ear and out the other, but holds it firmly in the heart, swallows it, and absorbs it into the intestines” (AE 9:136).
  • Tentatio (affliction)- God uses tentatio (spiritual trial and temptation) to drive a way from self and to His promises alone. Tentatio happens within the context of a person’s vocation. “Tentatio is testing, temptation, and trial which occurs when God and his word intersect with us and our world” (Pfeiffer, 113). Suffering happens precisely because a person is faithful to his calling. See Luther’s comments on “cross bearing” (see AE 51:195-208). “Peace with God brings conflict and adversity with the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Hein, 33). Pastors are not exempt from tentatio. In fact God uses it to draw us away from our own abilities to the gifts He gives in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Luther is thankful for his enemies: “For I myself…must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…” (Doberstein, 288). “As soon as a person meditates and is occupied with God’s Word; as soon as God’s Word begins to take root in and grow in him, the devil harries him with much conflict, bitter contradiction, and blatant opposition. But these assaults (Anfechtungen) prove to be spiritually counterproductive, for by driving him to the end of his tether, they teach him ‘to seek and love God’s Word’ as the source of all his strength and being. In such a situation of temptation, he experiences for himself the power and truth of God’s Word. Temptation turns the student of God’s Word into a real theologian, because it exercises and reinforces his faith in Christ. He experiences the power of God’s Word in his own weakness. Paradoxically, he sees the presence of God and his grace most fully displayed under its apparent negation in adversity and trouble. Because he bears the word of Christ in himself, he must also bear the cross for it. But, as he bears his own cross, he gets to know himself and Christ whose glory was revealed by his death on the cross. Meditation, then, ultimately elucidates temptation and is itself elucidated by it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 147).

“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Right Way to Study Theology” (287-289) in The Minister’s Prayerbook edited by John Doberstein is taken (in an abridged form) from the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539” (AE 34:279-288).

The Father’s Humility at the Cross

The cross is the pinnacle of humility (Phil 2:5-11). We know that event displays the heart and character of Christ, but what about the Father? Is there humility displayed in his role in Calvary? I believe so.

The Father’s Humility at the Cross

When we discuss the Trinity and the cross we must tread lightly. All too often the three persons are polarized and misrepresented. Caricatures of a stern distant father and an unwilling Son abound. The truth, the Triune God suffers at the cross. All three persons experience suffering. All three persons demonstrate sacrifice and humility.

Jurgen Moltmann captures the unique suffering and humility of the Father in the cross of his Son.

“The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of his Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father, and if God has constituted himself as the Father of Jesus Christ, then he also suffers the death of his Fatherhood in the death of the Son.”

A rarely explored dimension of the cross, this perspective opens a window into the humility of God the Father. In the giving of his beloved Son the Father is saying, “I am meek and humble in heart.” Humility is outward looking self-sacrificial love. If the Father’s gift of Christ is not an expression of humility, I don’t know what is.

I will end this post with a great quote by Jurgen Schulz. I believe he is correct in his assessment of the centrality of the cross in displaying the heart of God. Though he doesn’t use the language of humility he is touching the concept.

“The Triune God who lives in the Eternal Dance of glory, goodness and grace. The God of Calvary love. The God Christ came to reveal.There is one way of knowing what He is really like—look at Jesus. Look at the cross. Only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom the Son makes Him known.He is a God who lays down his life for others. That is what actually goes on inside the Trinity! Self-sacrificing love. One author described Him as a Supreme Being of ‘fathomless unselfishness.’ The cross was not an accident. It is what this Triune Community is all about. It is what the Bible means when it says, “God is love.” What an amazing Deity He turns out to be!”

What You Won’t Find in God’s heart

God is sovereign and pain is pervasive. This is a tension I uncomfortably affirm. There is a text from the book of Lamentations that provides a window into the heart of God on the matter. More specifically, the passage reveals what is absent from the heart of God as he sovereignly executes his work.

Here is the text. “Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:22-23). I have called on some old school commentators to explore this discussion. Take a look at their interpretations of the passage. 

John Calvin


This is another confirmation of the same truth, that God takes no delight in the evils or miseries of men. It is indeed a strong mode of speaking which the Prophet adopts, but very suitable. God, we know, puts on, as it were, our form or manner, for he cannot be comprehended in his inconceivable glory by human minds. Hence it is that he transfers to himself what properly can only apply to men. God surely never acts unwillingly nor feignedly: how then is that suitable which Jeremiah declares, — that God does not afflict from his heart? But God, as already said, does here assume the character of man; for though he afflicts us with sorrow as he pleases, yet true it is that he delights not in the miseries of men; for if a father desires to benefit his own children, and deals kindly with them, what ought we to think of our heavenly Father?

“Ye,” says Christ, “who are evil, know how to do good to your children,” (Matthew 7:11); what then are we to expect from the very fountain of goodness? As, then, parents are not willingly angry with their children, nor handle them roughly, there is no doubt but that God never punishes men except when he is constrained. There is, as I have said, an impropriety in the expression, but it is enough to know, that God derives no pleasure from the miseries of men, as profane men say, who utter such blasphemies as these, that we are like balls with which God plays, and that we are exposed to many evils, because God wishes to have as it were, a pleasant and delectable spectacle in looking on the innumerable afflict, ions, and at length on the death of men.

 Thomas Brooks


For He does not willingly (or as the Hebrew has it, ‘from His heart’) bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” Christians conclude that God’s heart was not in their afflictions, though His hand was. He takes no delight to afflict His children; it goes against His heart. It is . . .a grief to Him to be grievous to them, a pain to Him to be punishing of them, a sorrow to Him to be striking them. 

 Matthew Poole


In the Hebrew it is, he doth not afflict from his heart, that is, with pleasure and delight; or (which seemeth the best sense to me) not from his own mere motion without a cause given him from the persons afflicted. Hence judgment is called God’s strange work. Showing mercy is his proper natural work, which floweth from himself without any cause in the creature. Judgment is his strange work, to which he never proceedeth but when provoked, and as it were forced from the creature, whence it followeth that he cannot delight in it. 

John Piper


Ezekiel tells us that God does not delight in this suffering. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). But the plan remains, and Jeremiah gives us a glimpse into the mysterious complexity of the mind of God in Lamentations 3:22-23. “Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” Literally: “He does not from his heart [millibbô] afflict or grieve the children of men.” He ordains that suffering come—“though he cause grief”—but his delight is not in the suffering, but in the great purpose of creation: the display of the glory of the grace of God in the suffering of Christ for the salvation of sinners.

John Gill


He does not [afflict] with delight and pleasure; he delights in mercy, but judgment is his strange act; nor does he do it with all his heart and soul, with all his might and strength; he does not stir up all his wrath: for then the spirit would fail before him, and the souls that he has made; and especially he does not do it out of ill will, but in love, and for their good: nor grieve the children of men: that is, he does not from his heart, or willingly, grieve the children of men, by, afflicting them; which must be understood of those sons of men whom he has loved, and made his sons and heirs; those sons of men that wisdom’s delights were with from everlasting, Proverbs 8:31. 

 

When God Wounds

The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones was once asked, “What does a person look like who has truly met God?” Alluding to Genesis 32:31 he replied, “He walks with a limp.” The story referred to by Dr. Jones is the strange tale of God and Jacob wrestling through the night. Frederick Buechner titled this story The Magnificent Defeat. Jacob tangles with his Creator and paradoxically prevails over him through being defeated.

This “crippling grace” as Kent Hughes calls it results in a limp, a changed name, and a new way walk of life for Jacob. Walter Brueggemann says the “new name cannot be separated from the new crippling, for the crippling is the substance of the name.” Jacob’s new brokenness is central to his transformation. His woundedness is the mark of God’s presence in his life.

I draw a few important things from this story. First, pain and blessing are not mutually exclusive. Blessing comes through pain. They are tied together. Second, divine encounters are not always what we might expect. When God shows up, sometimes there’s a whirlwind, sometimes there’s a lightning storm, and sometimes there’s a wrestling match. The outcome of these encounters can also be counter-intuitive. A dislocated hip is probably not what Jacob was looking for and definitely not what he expected.

The third and final observation is that transformation is gritty and sweaty. Change happens when Creator and creature grapple in close quarters. Jacob’s encounter with God was extremely earthy. It happened on the soil of the earth. It was physical, tangible, and real. God executes his sanctifying power through the concrete, raw, and painful contexts where he shows up in wrestling gear.

Here is a great imaginative retelling of the story of Jacob and God. Check it out here: I will not let you go unless you bless me.

 

Richard Bauckham on Forgiveness

Here is another section of an interesting article I read by New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham. He touches on a very rich aspect of forgiveness—the pain endured to make it possible. In this short reflection, Bauckham touches on the suffering of God that marked his forgiving grace.

When some brutal murder is in the news, reporters always press the victim’s relatives to say how they feel about the murderers. I always find it an unpleasant spectacle. All too often the reporters seem to be trying to extract expressions of hatred and bitterness. Quite often we hear the grieving relatives say that they could never forgive the people who did that.

Of course, we are not surprised that people in such circumstances should feel like that. We easily understand how, being so badly hurt, they should feel it impossible to forgive. We can share their sense that justice demands retribution, not forgiveness.

But then it is all the more striking that sometimes a person in such a situation says that they feel no bitterness towards the murderers. These forgiving people are no less feeling. We can see that they loved their murdered relatives no less than the others who say they cannot forgive did. They grieve no less. In fact, one gets the impression that they have suffered more, felt the hurt more deeply, let it reach further into their hearts. They have absorbed the pain so deeply that it doesn’t come pouring back out of them as bitterness and hatred. They know there’s been quite enough pain and they don’t want to pass any more on, even to those who deserve it.

Sometimes these people come across as characteristically forgiving people, people whom, if you knew them, you would expect to react like this. But that doesn’t mean that forgiving is painless. Quite the opposite. Forgiveness is only painless when the crime is trivial or hasn’t affected us very much. And to forgive what people do to those we love is more painful and more demanding than to forgive what they do to ourselves.

All this may help us to understand a little what it means for God to forgive us. One of the things Jesus showed us is that it is God’s nature to forgive. God is characteristically forgiving. In a sense, we can expect God to forgive. As people sometimes say, “Of course, God will forgive: that’s his business.” Yes, but this doesn’t mean that forgiveness is painless for God. Quite the opposite.

All the evil we do hurts God. It spoils and damages the world God has made and the people God loves and cherishes. So it hurts God deeply. And God absorbs all that pain so deeply that he forgives.

This is one way of understanding how it is Jesus’ death on the cross that brings God’s forgiveness to us. God in Jesus’ suffering bore all the pain of forgiving us. He didn’t let the hurt bounce back against those who crucified Jesus – all of us. He took it into his heart.

This happened in the very public event of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event which has become one of the best known events of history. That’s because we need to see God’sforgiveness. We need to see it in order to really believe it. And we need to see it so that it can affect us and change us.

I don’t know how murderers react when they see their victims’ relatives on the television news. Maybe sometimes it may make them regret what they’ve done. If so, I’m quite sure that it would not be the unforgiving but the forgiving reactions which would have this effect.

When we see God’s forgiveness of our evil – when we view the cross in this way – that changes us. God doesn’t wait till we’ve changed our ways and become better people before forgiving us. Rather it is God’s forgiveness that brings us to repentance and new life.