The Abiding Compassion of the Unchanging God of Love

By Fr. Michael J. Dodds, O.P.

“GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4: 16)

In this brief sentence, St. John summarizes our Christian faith. All the ponderings of theologians through all the ages flow from this single truth. God is an eternal communion of love – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine love is the source of all creation. As St. Thomas Aquinas says: “The Father loves not only the Son, but also Himself and us, by the Holy Spirit” (Summa Theologica [ST] I, 37, 2, ad 3).

God created the world in love. Even when we sinned, God’s love remained with us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3: 16). In love Jesus gave his life for us: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In love he sent the Holy Spirit (John 14: 15-18) and promised to remain with us always: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14: 23). “I am with you always to the close of the age” (Matthew 28: 20).

God’s love is abiding, faithful and unchanging- no matter how much our love for God may wax and wane. As God says through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even though these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49: 15). St. Paul assures us: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful- for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2: 13). Our love can sometimes become selfish, but God’s love is always generous- a friendship, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, in which “God simply wishes the eternal good, which is Himself, for the creature” (ST I-II, 110, 1, co.).

God’s love is not just greater than ours: it is fundamentally different. Our love is awakened by the goodness in things. When dinner tastes good, we love a second helping; when it’s not so tasty, we find we’re not so hungry. God’s love, in contrast, is not awakened by the goodness of things but is rather the source of their goodness. As Aquinas explains: “Our love … is not the cause of goodness; but … the love of God infuses and creates goodness” (ST I, 20, 2, co.). In the act of creation, God shares his goodness with creatures: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1: 31). God dwells most intimately in all that he has made: “As long as a thing has being, God must be present to it. … But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things. … Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly” (ST I, 8, 1, co.).

God’s love abides with us in our sorrow, suffering and distress. Scripture uses the word “compassion” to describe this special presence of God: “The Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion” (Isaiah 49: 13). “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10). Jesus embodies divine compassion “He saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14). Jesus also commands us to practice compassion: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6: 36).

How should we understand God’s compassion? Human compassion involves both a reaction of sadness and a desire to help when we become aware of another’s sorrow or distress (ST I, 21, 3). As God’s love is different from ours, so is God’s compassion. It is more intimate, more engaged. Our compassion for the victims of some tragedy is awakened when we hear of their plight. God’s compassion does not need to be awakened, since his love is ever active and ever present with us. God does not “react” to our situation, but is simply present with us, acting always to bring us from present sorrow to the fullness of peace in his kingdom. As Bernard of Clairvaux says: “God is not affected; he is affection.”

In our sympathetic response to the suffering of another, we become saddened, and our sorrow is the human sign of our concern. Beyond sympathy, however, we are also capable of empathy in which we forget ourselves and simply view the suffering of the other as our own. As Aquinas explains:

Just as, properly speaking, it is not compassion but suffering that describes our condition when we ourselves experience some cruel treatment, so also, if there are some persons so united to us as to be, in a way, something of ourselves, such as children or parents, we do not have compassion at their distress but rather we suffer as in our own wounds (ST II-II, 30, 1, ad 2.).

If empathy is a more profound sort of human love than mere sympathy, then it seems that, when we speak of the perfection of divine love, we should use the language of empathy. It is just this language that Jesus uses in speaking of the suffering of humankind. He does not say that he experiences a sympathetic sorrow at human distress, but rather that he sees our human plight as his own. So, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25: 35-36). He does not say, “You were hungry, and I felt bad for you,” or “you were thirsty and I grieved for you,” but rather, “I was hungry… I was thirsty.” Jesus so identifies himself with us in our distress as to call our suffering his own.

Such is the intimacy of divine love, in which God does not (as if at some distance) react or respond to our suffering, but simply identifies with us in our suffering. As Aquinas says: “God does not have compassion on us except on account of love, insofar as he loves us as something of himself” (ST II-II 30, 2, ad 1). Just as we, seeing those whom we love most deeply “as something of ourselves,” are identified with them in their suffering, so, analogously, God, seeing us “as something of himself,” makes us one with him in love and regards our suffering his own.

To evoke the infinite depth of divine love, Scripture uses metaphorical images. So, God says to Israel: “I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love… My compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11: 4, 8). The prophet Isaiah testifies: “I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, … the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses. … In all their distress he too was distressed. … In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isaiah 63: 7-9). In such images, we find the profundity and intimacy of divine love.

The theme of God’s oneness with his people is developed in the New Testament through the image of the Body of Christ (e.g., Corinthians 12: 12-27). By grace, we are truly united with Christ and made one with him through the Holy Spirit. We become in a way one person with Christ. So, when Jesus appears to Paul, who was then persecuting the Church, he says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) — Not “why do you persecute them?” but “why do you persecute me?” As Aquinas explains: “As a natural body is one, though made up of various members, so the whole Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is reckoned as one person with its head, who is Christ” (ST III, 49, 1, co.).

Because we are one body with Christ, our sufferings are in some way Christ’s own. So, Aquinas explains the words of Jesus: “Whatever you do to one of these least of my brothers, you do to me,’… because the head and the members are one body” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 25, lect. 3). Since Jesus is God, it is God himself who is identified with us in our suffering. It is God himself who has compassion on us “on account of love, insofar as he loves us as something of himself” (ST II-II 30, 2, ad 1).

Our sorrow at the distress of another is the sign or sacrament of our love. By entering into the sorrow of another, praying for them, and acting as best we can to relieve their distress, we reflect the transcendent compassion of God. As our Dominican Father Leo Thomas has written:

Our eyes are the eyes that God uses to weep for the pain of the world. Our emotions are the emotions God uses to have compassion upon his people. Our hands are the hands God uses to bestow his healing blessing upon those in need. If we do not weep, some people will never know God cares. If we do not lay our hand on others in a gesture of acceptance, some will never experience healing in this world. … This is the mystery of the Incarnation: God will establish his presence in the world though the weakness and limitations of sinful humanity. (Leo Thomas, O.P., with Jan Alkire, Healing Ministry: a Practical Guide [Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1994], 12).

We speak a language of the heart, often best expressed by our silent presence. As Pope Francis has said, “Our response must either be silence or the word that is born of our tears.” Here, we might think of the tears of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, who entered most profoundly into the suffering of her Son as she stood at the foot of the cross. In Mary we find the human reflection of God’s unfathomable love, of which St. Catherine of Siena spoke so eloquently: “O immeasurably tender love! Who would not be set afire with such love? … You gave us the Word, your only-begotten Son. … What was the reason for this? Love. For you loved us before we existed. O good, O eternal greatness, you made yourself lowly and small to make us great! No matter where I turn, I find nothing but your deep and burning love” (St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue [New York: Paulist Press, 1980], 61, 273)

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