When the Lord proclaimed his name and character to Moses on Mount Sinai he began, “YHWH, YHWH, compassionate and gracious…” (Exodus 34:5). We’ve already explored how the Hebrew word for compassion is deeply emotional and affectionate. Derived from the word meaning “womb,” it’s connected to the tenderness a parent feels for her child. Now let’s turn our attention to YHWH’s graciousness and how this quality relates to his compassion.
Unfortunately, many of us have a truncated understanding of grace. The word is popularly used among Christians as a synonym for forgiveness as in, “I was speeding but the police officer showed me grace.” Similarly, when we call someone gracious we usually mean not judgmental or legalistic as in, “Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus was gracious.” This understanding of grace is not wrong, but it is dreadfully incomplete as it sees grace merely through a narrow legal lens.
When we hear God declare that he is “compassionate and gracious,” our abbreviated understanding of grace causes us to interpret this as a statement of God’s forgiveness toward our sins. God is certainly forgiving, and we will explore that aspect of his character in the coming days, but we must not reduce “compassionate and gracious” to just forgiveness of sins. The Lord is proclaiming much, much more.
Dallas Willard offers his helpful correction to our vision of grace: “Grace is not just about forgiveness — if we had never sinned we would still need grace! Grace is God acting in our life to do what we cannot do on our own. Grace is what we live by and the human system won’t work without it. The saint uses grace like a 747 jet burns gas on takeoff!”
The Hebrew word for “gracious” used in Exodus 34 is hanun. It is an action word and it compliments and contrasts with “compassionate” which is a feeling word. Compassionate is how YHWH feels toward us; gracious is how YHWH acts toward us. Willard’s definition captures the action-orientation of grace. Again, the love of a parent for her child illustrates this well. A cold, hungry, crying infant will stir a mother’s compassion. The mother will then act in the child’s life to do what it cannot do on its own. Obviously, the mother’s graciousness toward the child has nothing to do with forgiveness or the legal expunging of sins. Likewise, the Lord is gracious toward us every time he acts in our lives not merely when he forgives us.