December 26, 2023 Editor

This Is Why Jesus Wept

Dec. 24, 2023

Mr. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is a contributing Opinion writer. He attends McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.

image above: James Tissot, “Jesus Wept (Jésus pleura),” 1886-1896. Credit…Brooklyn Museum

WN: Ivan Illich and Hannah Arendt are amongst many who say that with Jesus, an ethical novelty entered the DNA of humanity, until then bereft of the ethical impulse: love of enemy! For Illich, The Good Samaritan Story is that break with the ethical past, the epitome of the New Testament.1


During times of sorrow and times of tears, when it feels like we’re “being broken on the wheels of living,” in the words of Thornton Wilder, there is great comfort in believing God empathizes with our suffering, having entered into suffering himself. But we also need his emissaries. We need people who see us and know us, who enter our stories. Through their compassion and love, we feel, I feel — even if only partly — God’s compassion and love.

Of all the qualities that the New Testament ascribes to God, compassion is among the most shocking.

Compassion has nothing to do with power, with immortality or with immutability, which is what many people think of when they contemplate God’s qualities. The Greek gods of myth who lived on Mt. Olympus were defined by many things, but compassion was not high among them.

“For much of antiquity feeling the pain of others was regarded as a weakness,” John Dickson, a professor of biblical studies and public Christianity at Wheaton College, told me. This comes to full flowering in the Stoics, he said, “on the grounds that this involved allowing an external factor — the emotions or plight of another — to control your own inner life.”

Compassion, on the other hand, is central to the Christian understanding of God. Compassion implies the capacity to enter into places of pain, to “weep with those who weep,” according to the Apostle Paul, who was central both to the early conception of Christianity and to the idea of its underpinning in compassion.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we’re told many times that God is compassionate. It is at the center of the Jewish conception of God. But for Christians, there is an incarnational expression of that compassion. The embodiment of God in Jesus — the deity made flesh, dwelling among us — means that God both suffered and, crucially, suffered with others in a way that was a seismic break with all that came before. In the Gospels, we repeatedly read of the compassion of Jesus for those suffering physically and emotionally, for those “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

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  1. It is also representation for Illich of “the corruption of the best is the worst.” See on this, David Cayley’s massive book, Ivan Illich: An Intellecutal Journey, especially, Chapter 12: Corruptio Optimi Pessima.[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.