The Option for Compassion
by Brother Bernard Couvillion, S.C.
Selected Readings, pp. 5-12
I. In union with the heart of God
The Case Against Compassion
The Old Testament gives testimony of a deep-rooted tradition that God's heart harbors emotions which are the polar opposite of compassion. The Orthodox Metropolitan of Tirana said, "We must accept that in our religious books there are verses that can be used to support terrorism." So it wouldn't require a very creative devil's advocate to deflate the chapter's optimism about compassion. He could start at no less important a place than the first words of the first commandment: "I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation." (Ex 20:5-6)
Our devil's advocate could use more ancient sources. Shortly after creation, Genesis tells us, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, 'I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created." (Gen 6:5-7) This is the first scriptural mention of the heart of God, and regrettably we find it filled not with compassion but with anguished indignation.
Picking up from there, the prophets identify themselves with the indignation in the Creator's heart and write powerfully about it. The first lines of Isaiah set the tone for three hundred years of prophetic tradition with a lament coming straight from God's heart: "I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know. My people do not understand. Ah!" (Is 1:2-4)
An astute devil' s advocate would dramatize to full effect the exclamation at the end of God's lament--Ah! That small word speaks volumes. It sums up a groan expressed over and over in the book of each prophet from Isaiah to John the Baptist: God is at a loss to articulate deeply felt exasperation and horror about how things have turned out.
With the heavy heart of an abandoned father,
God utters punishing oaths-
I cannot endure..., my soul hates ...,
I am weary..., I will hide...,
I will not listen. (cf. Is I:13-16)
With the furious heart of a betrayed husband;
Whore! ... 1 will pour out my wrath...
I will turn my hand against you...
and avenge myself (cf. Is I:21-24)
We cannot deny that our devil' s advocate has ample documentation to support a case against compassion. But if we cross-examine the same texts he used from Exodus, Genesis, and Isaiah, we will see that he has presented only half of the story. God's fury is only the first act in a longer drama of divine choice. In each case, a second act reveals a deliberate option.
Act I of the story of the Ten Commandments ended with Moses angrily shattering the first version of the tablets of the law. When the curtain goes up on Act II, he is imploring the Lord to disavow wrath "that punishes children for the iniquity of parents" and to remember instead the mercy that made the Passover a dream come true. (Ex 32:11-12) In response to Moses' prayer, God changes heart, takes up fresh tablets and composes a preamble to the Ten Commandments which completely transforms the spirit of the earlier version. Passing anew before Moses, the Lord says:
I am the Lord;
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding
in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love
for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquityand transgression and sin. (Ex 34:6-7)
Thus, the final version of the Ten Commandments begins with God's predilection for mercy over punishment.
We left the Genesis drama in the first act with God threatening to blot human beings off the earth. A second act begins with another small but hugely significant word: but. The word but is a freeze-frame highlighting the moment at which God changes heart. "But Noah found favor in the sight of God." (Gen 6:8) Fury suddenly changes to favor. What follows is the well-known epic in which creation is re-born from the bosom of the Ark, symbol of God's maternal womb.
At the end of the story of the flood we hear the Scriptures' second reference to the heart of God: "The Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse humankind. I will never again destroy.'" (Gen 8:21) Then, using the familiar language of the first creation--"be fruitful and multiply"--God starts a new creation at whose finale a rainbow replaces the blot that ended the first one. Act I of the drama of creation closed with violence in the heart of God. By Act II God has no regrets. This is not because humanity has changed; quite the opposite, it is God who changes. With the full realization that "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth," God deliberately chooses to act with compassion.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, God the violent father of verse 2 once again changes heart. By verse 18 he is saying to his sons, "though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be like snow." By the second chapter, God the betrayed husband of Zion is singing a hymn to her disavowing the sword of anger and promising plowshares of domestic harmony. God the warrior opts to become God the farmer.
A pattern has been set. After an impassioned bout with personal indignation, God's heart flames up in anguished discourse, but ultimately beats with merciful tenderness. The pattern evolves into a divine "perpetual vow" --a covenant of compassion--renewed generation after generation. It is important to note that the tumultuous pattern benefits not only "good guys" like Moses, Noah and Isaiah. It extends compassion to evil men guilty of injustice, cruelty, and idolatry, such as during the oppressive reign of corrupt kings: "The Lord was merciful with Israel and looked on them with compassion because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was unwilling to destroy them or to cast them out from his presence." (2 Kings 13:23) Ephraim was the tribe that became the infuriatingly rebellious and idolatrous northern kingdom. Yet God disavows the retribution which it merits: "Is Ephraim not my favored son, the child in whom I delight? Often as I threaten him, I still remember him with favor; my heart stirs for him, I must show him mercy, says the Lord." (Jer 31:20)
The enduring pattern of God's option for compassion comes to be proclaimed repeatedly in the psalms as a central article of Jewish faith. Psalm 85 is an eloquent example.
O Lord; you once favored your land
And revived the fortunes of Jacob,
You forgave the guilt of your people
And covered all their sins.
You averted all your rage,
You calmed the heat of your anger. ...
Mercy and faithfulness have met,'
Justice and peace have embraced. (Psalm 85:2-4, 11)
God's Definition of Compassion
At this point I will dare to define key elements of God's spirituality of compassion. The most fundamental one is that God is not averse to undergoing suffering. Instead of arranging things in order to protect himself from grief, God leaves humankind free to inflict pain on him. A first movement of the divine spirituality of compassion, then, is vulnerability to suffering because of human behavior. For God, compassion means undergoing an ordeal of pain and misunderstanding that can rightly be called a passion.
God's option for compassion also involves suffering with us in our human pain. For example, God recoils at the destruction war will cause: "My breast! My breast! How I suffer! The walls of my heart! My heart beats wildly, I cannot be still, for I have heard the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war." (Jer 4:19) In the same vein, seeing refugees crowding into Jerusalem, God joins a choir of women mourners: "our eyes run with tears" ... "the wail of flutes is in my heart." (Jer 9:17; 48: 36) This second movement of God's "spirituality," living through our anguish in empathy with us, could be written with a hyphen: com-passion.
There is a third movement. Besides suffering on account of us and with us, God also suffers for the sake of changing us. Knowing that each generation needs to be created anew, God accepts the pain of a mother giving birth: "I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in; but now I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting." (Is 42:14) "Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me.' . .. 'Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?'" (Is 49:15) This third movement is forward-looking. God's compassion means more than erasing the sins of our past and accompanying us in the present. It is also a commitment to bearing us forward into a new future. This third movement of God's spirituality of compassion has to do with passage in the sense of Passover. God supplies the labor and the nourishment we need to be reborn.
God suffers passion, com-passion, and passage.
The Suffering of God
Some of us might find it hard to conceive of God suffering, especially those of us whose formation gave us an engraved image of God as omnipotent. God is almighty, yet the Vatican theological commission asks us to temper that statement. In one of its catechetical texts for the jubilee year it quotes Thomas Aquinas' Summa: "God's omnipotence is chiefly manifested through compassion."
St. Thomas' statement rings true to my human experience, and probably yours too. Most of us have experienced how much strength is required to endure suffering and how much mastery is needed to control our feelings. We also know what great force of character we must have to pardon those who have wronged us. Far from being weakness, God's suffering is a sovereign act of omnipotence. The opening prayer of the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time confirms that truth: "Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness."
At this point our devil's advocate could jump in to object that all this talk of God with a heart and expressing emotions and suffering is nothing but a form of "anthropomorphism." The limits of human language require us, he would say, to use poetry that clothes God in human likeness; the prophets were simply giving human characteristics to a divine presence whom they didn't understand.
I side with the scholars who take the exact opposite position, basing themselves on a passage we all know from Genesis: "Let us make humankind in our own image, after our likeness." (Gen 1:26) With them, I am convinced that it is not a question of God acting like us, but of our imitating God. When we speak of our feelings of long-suffering and compassion, why is it hard to think that our language might be "theo-morphic"? At creation God modeled the ways of the human heart after the ways of the divine heart. It is we who are "partakers of the divine nature" (R 2) and not vice-versa.
In fact, one reason the Israelites forbade carving divine images was their belief that God could only be presented as a living, feeling human being. To reveal himself and his messianic promise, "the Lord sought out a man after his own heart," David. (1 Sam 13: 14) The fulfillment of that messianic promise, of course, was Jesus, who shows that the captivating humanity of God's self-revelation in the Old Testament expresses something fundamental to the very being of God.