The Compassionate God
This week, we are reading through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.
Introduction & Part One: The Compassionate God
To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition. (6)
But being compassionate toward others, especially the poor and marginalized to whom competition does the most harm, does not come naturally. We do not like to be around others’ pain and suffering, and we certainly do not like to give up anything we consider ours for the benefit of someone else — even in the name of fairness and justice, much less forgiveness and compassion.
Fortunately, we are not governed by our own desires and fears but by the movement of God in our lives:
God’s own compassion constitutes the basis and source of our compassion….[I]t is only in discipleship that we can begin to understand the call to be compassionate as our loving God is compassionate….[I]t is through these disciplines [of prayer and action], which guide our relationships with God and our fellow human beings, that God’s compassion can manifest itself. (8)
Their central argument is that Christians — as human beings who are by our very nature threatened by the idea of showing compassion to others (and thereby losing competition and identity) — are enabled to share in God’s compassion through the new identity we have been given as a result of our experience of the compassion of God in our lives through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This means the compassion that moves us to “be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition” does not come from our own nature; it comes from God.
It also comes from the example of a God who would make himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Because of the humble incarnation of Christ, the example of Jesus’ life, the choice to be obedient to death, and the miracle of the resurrection, we are able to experience the compassion of God for ourselves:
Jesus who is divine lives our broken humanity not as a curse…, but as a blessing. His divine compassion makes it possible for us to face our sinful selves, because it transforms our broken human condition from a cause of despair into a source of hope. (15)
The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away, but that God first wants to share that pain with us. (16)
Once we have experienced God’s compassion in our own lives, we are transformed by this new-found grace and freedom to live into the new identity we are given as children of God. Then we are able to follow the example of Jesus. Indeed, we are called to do so:
[O]nce we see that Jesus reveals to us, in his radically downward pull, the compassionate nature of God, we begin to understand that to follow Jesus is to participate in the ongoing self-revelation of God. (27)
Personally, this is where I get stuck. I can agree all day that Jesus taught us to be servants and showed us by example how to live radically counter-cultural lives that defy competition in favor of compassion and justice for the poor and marginalized.
But what does that look like in my life? Am I missing out on the will of God by not living in Calcutta or joining Shane Claiborne’s intentional community? What does it mean to be radically counter-cultural?
Radical servanthood is not an enterprise in which we try to surround ourselves with as much misery as possible, but a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood….[S]ervice is an expression of the search for God. (29)
That’s a beautiful line: a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood.
It’s not about finding the most misery. We don’t all have to be Mother Theresa to be doing God’s compassionate work in the world. It’s about a radical paradigm shift. It’s about seeing with new eyes, eyes opened to who God is through service.
So how do we know what we are called to do in the world? How do we know if we are Mother Theresas or mothers of three? Our wise authors remind us that it’s much simpler than we imagine:
The obedience of Jesus is hearing God’s loving word and responding to it. (34)
We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God….[Jesus] came to include us in his divine obedience. He wanted to lead us to God so that we could enjoy the same intimacy he did. (38)
God is all about relationship. God is all about intimacy. When we relate to God intimately, we cannot help but see the world with new eyes. We cannot help but be moved by compassion. We cannot help but pray and act — those disciplines that guide our relationships with God and others.
On Wednesday, we’ll look at Part Two: The Compassionate Life.