The Father is full of compassion for you. Compassion is not something that we have to wait for. Compassion is not something we need to be good enough for. Jesus gave us a parable that describes what the Father’s compassion looks like. The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) illustrates that compassion fills the Father’s heart even while we are still far off-track in the Christian life.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20 NIV).
What don’t you like about yourself? Do you still feel ashamed of your sins, and is this making you wonder if Father God is keeping you in misery because you don’t deserve better treatment?
The parable of the Prodigal Son assures us that the Father cherishes us no matter what we’ve done. He waits, full of fatherly yearning, for us to turn away from our sins and turn toward him. That’s all we need to do, just turn around. And the moment we do that, he runs to us! He wastes no time but immediately embraces us, welcomes us, and kisses us with his super-abundant love.
The prodigal son had not yet asked his dad for forgiveness when he felt forgiveness wrap around him like a warm blanket. His confession came afterward. This is how the Father treats us. When we sin, he waits for our repentance with eager anticipation. He feels the pain of our absence. His fatherly heart yearns for the moment when we’ll realize that we’re better off with him than in the pig sty of our sins.
Why does he treat us this way when he knows we will so easily fall back into sin? He sees our future. And yet he does not hold our future sins against us. He embraces us in the here and now. That’s compassion!
This is what it means to be an adopted child of God. When the Father looks at us who are his adopted sons and daughters, he doesn’t focus on what we’ve done wrong. While we are still in the state of sin, his focus is on the horizon line while he awaits our turn-around. He focuses on the steps we make in the right direction. And he is driven by compassion to run and meet us, wherever we are, and to embrace us in a divine welcome-back hug, and to brace us up in our weaknesses.
Because of this, we can stop feeling ashamed of ourselves. We can give God’s compassion to ourselves. At the same time that we’re feeling convicted to repent, rather than beat ourselves up over what we did wrong (which is the Accuser attacking us again), the Father wants us to be compassionate to ourselves just like he’s being compassionate. This does not mean that we make excuses for our sins. No, it means that just like Father God is focused on our turn-around and celebrates our repentance, so should we. Instead of unceasingly wallowing in regret, we can learn from our mistakes and we can grow stronger in our commitment to live as the saints that God gifted us to be when we were baptized.
When my imagination illustrates the story of the Prodigal Son, I see the son limping toward home. He’s walked a long distance on an empty stomach. He’s weak and barely able to trudge through the last few miles of the journey home. His father runs to him and cries tears of joy and relief while hugging his son. Then he provides his own strength to support his son for the rest of the journey home.
Abba-Father is bracing you up, too, in your weaknesses — even before you conquer that persistent sin that makes you feel so unworthy. In his tremendous compassion he is giving you powerful support.
Such compassion is unimaginable for those of us who were abused or neglected or rejected by parents. And even in homes where the parents were full of compassion, to the child, discipline feels more like animosity than compassion. A good parent gives children a welcome-back hug after they’ve learned their lesson or showed a desire to improve. But if we grew up in a home where we did not feel our parent’s compassion during punishments, we’re probably projecting their character flaw onto God’s fatherhood.
When our prayers go unanswered or we suffer a problem that makes life unceasingly difficult, we automatically assume that God is lacking compassion. We think we’re being punished.
It’s true that God disciplines us, but this always comes from a heart that yearns for us to become our best selves, which is also our happiest selves. The Father’s heart weeps when we sin. He knows that sin is destroying us in ways we cannot yet see. And he longs for us to spend eternity at Home with him. He is all-goodness, and so he has to chastise us.
He does not chastise us by refusing to answer our prayers. That would require him to stop being good, which is quite impossible. We block or delay the answers to prayers by the choices we make and by rejecting God’s ways of dealing with whatever we’re praying for.
The word “chastise” comes from the Latin word castigare, which means “to set or keep right,” or “to make pure.” Punishments that Father God initiates are chastisements that are designed to get our attention and make us turn to the Son who took our sins and nailed them his Cross. By the blood he shed for us on Good Friday, we are purified from every sin that we genuinely want to overcome.
The word “compassion” means “to suffer with”. The Latin word com means “with, together”. The Latin root of “passion” is pati, which means “to suffer”. Therefore we need to realize that in every chastisement, the Father suffers with us. He is not the parent who sends an erring child to the corner; he takes us to the corner and sits with us there. He is not the parent who teaches a lesson by making the child suffer; he is the Parent who takes us to the Son who chose to suffer for us. When we accept this tremendous act of love, Jesus and the Father give us the Holy Spirit who teaches us lessons in a most victorious way. Thus, all things — including our sins — are made to work together for our good because our Father delights in turning something evil into something holy. (see Romans 8:28).
Fearing God as the Ultimate Punisher makes us vulnerable to the false promises that are offered by the world. The Devil plots to take advantage of our weaknesses, and those who believe that God does not have a compassionate heart toward them get tricked into putting more trust in themselves than in God. They embrace the world’s moral relativism. Their reasoning (unconsciously perhaps) is: “I’ll decide what’s right and wrong, because my way is more compassionate and tolerant than the God of the Christians.”
Sadly, we Christians often contribute to this by conveying God as uncompassionate. We do this when, in our holy desire to help others turn away from sin, we scold them or preach at them. We have the right intentions but the wrong delivery, usually because we’re not reaching out to them from a place of humility. We feel superior to them. But if we convey that we’re sharing the truth from our experiences of learning how to overcome our own sins, we become the Father’s voice inviting them to change. This is why Jesus said:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5 NIV)
We also contribute to a false image of the Father when we get judgmental and legalistic. We need to become better at conveying love, mercy, and compassion with the truths that others are rejecting or neglecting.
This is what chased Betty, a young woman in my parish many years ago, away from the Catholic Church. She had begun attending RCIA classes to become Catholic. When she learned that the Eucharist is Jesus himself, she began attending Mass daily. And she was so hungry for Jesus that she got into the communion line and received the Eucharist like everybody else. Her sponsors saw this and told her that she was not allowed to do it yet. Betty never returned.
Her sponsors were correct to stop her, but was there a way they could have done it and made Betty feel welcome and connected to Jesus in the Eucharist? They wanted to do what was right, but is it always right to enforce the rules? Exactly the way the rules are stated?
Because the Eucharist is Jesus, it’s blasphemous to receive him in Holy Communion when we are not in full communion with the Church. This means that if we are in unrepentant sin when we consume the Eucharist, we are making a mockery of this Sacrament. If we receive Jesus in the Eucharist but don’t believe that it is Jesus, we’re rejecting him and the teachings of the Church. If we want to go to Mass because Jesus is in the Eucharist but we don’t want to accept the Pope’s authority, we’re denying the validity of communion as the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and in the Church.
How should Betty’s sponsors have handled her desire to receive Jesus in the Eucharist? From my own experience of becoming Catholic, I can tell you that once someone has discovered the truth about the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the burning desire is very strong. “Give me Jesus! Why do you want to keep me away from Jesus?” is a common cry among new believers.
What might God the Father say to them? Do we picture him as a stern Father legalistically insisting on perfect compliance with the rules of the Church? That looks more like a disciplinarian than a compassionate Daddy. It is true that God is both. However, if our first impulse is to view him as disciplinarian, we will continue to have difficulty connecting with him. His heart will seem all too closed to us.
What’s the solution to Betty’s dilemma? Saint Paul wrote:
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1 NIV).
And then he spoke the truth with compassion:
“I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again…” (verses 14 and 15).
Paul affirmed what was good in the people of the Roman church, and at the same time he gently but firmly challenged them to change their ways. This is how to teach the truth with compassion.
What a challenge this is for us! If you’re like me, the hardest time to feel compassionate is in the moment of dealing with someone’s sinful behaviors. Our failure to be compassionate indicates that we’ve been relying on our own limited abilities. We need to open ourselves to let the Holy Spirit fill us and empower us with the Father’s compassion. Then we can give God’s compassion to others.
This becomes easier when we first understand God’s compassion for us personally.
The Father’s compassion is visible every day
Shout for joy, you heavens;
rejoice, you earth;
burst into song, you mountains!
For the Lord comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
(Isaiah 49:13-16 NIV)
Think of someone who has been very compassionate toward you. The Father gave you his own compassion through that person. Who has shown you compassion today? That’s the Father reaching out to you. Who was compassionate yesterday? That too was Abba-Father’s compassion.
Because I didn’t get enough compassion from my human father during my childhood, I found what I needed in Nana and Pop-pop (my maternal grandparents). God in his great compassion gave me grandparents who doted on me and favored me and listened to all of my complaints with sympathy and compassion.
During visits to their home, Nana and Pop-pop always took their grandchildren to church. On one of those Sundays, I heard the song “How Great Thou Art” for the first time. I loved it! It’s an inspiring song that stirred up within me a strong connection to God. My soul was pulled into it and I felt the Father’s love embrace me. I felt his power, made available through his compassion, in the words of the song, enhanced by the melody.
O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Because I enjoyed lying on the grass at night to look at the stars, the song said to me that God loves me so much he gave me the night sky. Because I wasn’t afraid of thunder (“That’s God having fun bowling” was the fable that my parents told me to explain the booms), the song said to me that God puts drama into rainstorms to entertain me. And because I had learned that God is bigger than the universe, the song said to me that his power was awesome. I felt that power in this song.
After church, I asked my grandparents if there was any way I could have that song. This occurred in the 1960s. Today you can find it on online and buy it on CD in music stores and Christian bookstores. Back then, it was not readily available. Nana and Pop-pop took me to music stores but it was not there. It became Nana’s mission to find a vinyl record of it for me. Although she never found a recording of it, her persistence and determination made a huge impression on me.
Who has worked hard to make a wish or dream of yours to come true? This is an example of the Father’s compassionate love.
“How Great Thou Art” is still one of my most favorite songs. Whenever I sing it in church or hear it on my phone’s music app and join in, I feel instantly more connected to the Father. I also feel connected to Nana. She passed away in 1977, and I can almost hear her singing it along with me. I feel her closeness and her joy and her worship in this song. I also feel her compassion and God’s compassion.
The Father’s compassion is with us every second of every day. To become more aware of it we only need to think of the people who have shown us compassion. He gave you his compassion through them. But their examples are only a tiny portion of what the Father is actually pouring out to you.
Learning to love with the compassion of Christ
Another example of the Father’s compassion comes from within ourselves.
One of the advantages of being adopted by God the Father is that we have the opportunity to learn from our Big Brother, Jesus. He teaches us how to be a true child of God. During the 1980s, I continually asked Jesus to enable me to love others the way he loves them — no matter what they’ve done. For several months, I continued to pray and wait for his help.
At that time, I did not know God the Father very well. I had met the Holy Spirit, and it was my trust in the Holy Spirit that gave me confidence to believe that Jesus would answer this prayer. I knew it was important. Without this gift, this ability, this connection to God, I would not be of much use to the kingdom of God. Without divine help I could not activate this gift. I just could not muster up, by my own efforts, unconditional love for everyone I encountered.
Going to the Sacrament of Confession for this didn’t change me. Although this sacrament does give us supernatural graces to overcome the sins that we cannot conquer on our own, more was needed from me. Compassion for others, especially for those who cause troubles, requires that we first truly desire to be like Christ in regards to love.
Abba-Father needed to discipline me, which is to say that he was discipling (teaching) me. I learned what it means to be disciplined by God compassionately. The Father’s discipline is firm but kind and compassionate and educational. Unlike the punishing disciplines of our human parents, God’s discipline doesn’t hurt; it only helps. He doesn’t scold us; he empowers us to change. And so the Father trained me.
In the first phase of my lesson, I faced the question: Did I really, truly want to receive this gift — enough to persistently pray for it?
I said yes and kept praying.
Several months later, while attending a Catholic Charismatic conference, I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation again to confess not loving everyone like Christ loves everyone. The priest gave me the usual type of penance: one Our Father prayer and three Hail Marys. Dutifully, I went to the makeshift chapel where Jesus in the Eucharist was present for adoration, and I knelt to fulfill my obligation.
Due to the faith-building environment of the conference, I felt especially close to God. This made it easy for my heart to hear the Lord speak to me. And it seemed that he wanted more from me than the penance assigned by the priest. He was about to give me a test. Would I be willing to do whatever he asked of me?
One of the people attending the conference was a woman from my parish. She served as a leader of the prayer group, but she belonged to a local wiccan coven. I did not like her. I certainly did not love her. Or rather, I did not know how to love her the way Jesus loves her. I felt angry at her for mixing the Christian faith with witchcraft. How dare she call herself a leader of the prayer group! She was a demonically-influenced fraud!
So Abba-Father asked me, “Will you love her?”
Gulp! How? I wanted to obey God. I wanted to be able to love her. This was a good example of what I had been praying to be able to do. So I replied, “If You help me do it, I will.”
What he said next startled me. “When you see her, give her a hug and tell her that you love her.” I knew it was the Lord speaking. It’s definitely not what I would have said to myself. And the voice was full of compassion for me as well as for the woman I disliked.
“Nooooo! Not that!” The idea repulsed me. At first I ran from the idea, but I allowed Jesus to wrestle with me. After struggling for a while, I feebly gave the Lord my yes and braced myself for the encounter.
Strangely, I never saw that woman again at the conference. Afterward, I asked the Lord if I should look for her at church to give her the hug. With a smile, which I could feel as clearly as any of my own emotions, Abba-Father told me that I had passed the test. It wasn’t about the hug; it was about my willingness. That made me very happy!
The Father had asked me to give compassionate love to someone I greatly disliked, while at the same time he protected me. The Father showed me through the test that my prayer had been answered. He also taught me that loving someone unconditionally does not mean we have to start liking them. Nor does it mean that we have to spend time with them or submit to their abuses.
This became a turning point in my life. I no longer felt the need to continue asking for the gift. God had delivered it and I had received it and, thanks to the test, I knew without any doubt that I had received it.
Since that day, compassion towards others has come more easily, even naturally. Not by my own effort but by the grace of God. He had given me his own compassion toward others. And because it is a grace, it has been a permanent gift. I’ve been repeatedly tested throughout the years that followed.
Tests from God are not like tests in school. They are not given to us to find out if we will succeed or how terribly we will fail. Each test is meant to teach us something important. My willingness to love others unconditionally has been repeatedly tested, and each time it has deepened my relationship with God while it increased my ability (by depending on God’s grace) to love all others unconditionally.
These tests always come from the compassionate heart of the Father. They reveal his compassion for me as I share his compassion with others. God’s help for passing the tests has remained steadily available.
Every time we reach our limit in loving someone, we can turn to the Lord and ask for supernatural help to love the way he loves. And he supplies this help every time. Of course! It is who he is. He is compassion itself. He is the source of our compassion for others. He wants us to be like him, and he wants us to deliver his tender compassion to others.
Listen to Dawn explain how well this works for her:
I have been able to catch myself thinking more about why the other person might do this or that that I am not liking. It is hard to take the plank out of your own eye, but praying to be more compassionate and thinking about God loving that person, asking me to love him/her helps. I then have my feelings soften and then I’m able to be more compassionate.
The tender mercy of the Father’s compassion
Saint Michel Garicoits (1797-1863) said,
What does Our Lord preach to us? Tenderness everywhere — in the Incarnation, His holy Childhood, the Passion, in the Sacred Heart, in every inch of His person, both internally and externally, in His words, in His looks… What must be the foremost characteristic of our spiritual life? Christian tenderness. Without this tenderness, we will never possess this spirit of generosity with which we must serve God.
The Father’s discipline is always compassionate. You know it’s our Divine Daddy when a challenging message is delivered with his patience, kindness, and support. It only feels unpleasant when we resist it. The more we want to fight him on it, and the more we want to do the opposite of what he is trying to teach us, the more painful the discipline feels. But it is not the Father who inflicts this pain. It is our own struggle against him. We inflict the pain upon our ourselves.
Case in point: the prodigal son of Jesus’ famous parable. Why do you think he felt afraid to go home when his life-choices turned out so miserably? What we know about his father — the joyful and tender mercy that overflowed enthusiastically to his lost son upon his return — was not new. Surely both of his sons had witnessed it for many years. Like Abba-Father, whom the father in the story represents, compassion was already part of his nature.
The prodigal son’s fears were based on shame, self-centeredness, and self-justification.
Shame blinds us to the truth. Shame – the fear that we are too sinful for the Father to bless us — prevents us from remembering that the Father’s nature is to wait for us with a yearning heart and open arms.
Wanting to do things our own way and only for our own sake — self-centeredness — keeps us turned away from God’s compassion. The prodigal son was rebellious, wanting to run his own life (look where that got him). He would have been afraid that returning to the family home would mean letting his dad have control.
To justify his loose living, he would’ve had to find ways to blame his father. He would’ve come up with stories about how his father had driven him away from home. This is what self-justification does to a person: It exaggerates the truth and reinvents memories; it manipulates the facts to the sinner’s own advantage.
None of this is a fun way to live. It seems to work for a while, and then the reality of life in a pig sty makes us miserable. It was not the father who inflicted this pain on the prodigal son. The son inflicted it upon himself. It was the consequences of his decisions.
He inflicted pain upon his father, too, but the father handled his suffering with undying compassion. The son, lacking compassion for his father (and was there a mother, too?) could not imagine that his father waited with forgiveness and compassion. He could not understand such compassion nor believe in it because he did not have it within himself. And so he shut himself off from the family, inflicting upon himself yet another pain, although he would deny this; he would have blamed his father for this, too.
There are many sons and daughters like this in today’s world. I’ve heard the stories and read the prayer requests of countless Christian parents whose grown children have behaved like the son in the parable. Some still live at home or in visiting distance, but they are emotionally and spiritually far away. They have closed themselves off from the love that waits for their return, because their self-justifications have been lying to them, telling them that condemnation or control or mistreatment is what awaits them, not compassionate love.
When they finally get desperate enough to stop this vicious cycle of feeling hurt and justifying themselves, they discover the compassion that has been there all along — the tender, merciful compassion of God the Father expressed through the family. In the parable, the father (and unseen mother) never stopped loving the son, even while they suffered from their son’s divisiveness, even while they felt hurt by the son’s lack of concern for their feelings.
The father’s unconditional, faithful love was his gift to the son even while the son was rejecting it. The gift that the son gave to his dad upon his return home was an open heart that was ready and willing to receive the love that had always been available.
The overflow of compassion
The Greek word for “compassion” that was used in the parable implies that the father’s heart, at the deepest level, was moved by the problems of his son. The father could not help but wait with great yearning for his son’s return. He wanted to reach his son with the love that could make a difference. He wanted to improve his son’s life. He wanted to restore joy to him. He whom the son rejected was really his best ally.
This is God’s compassion. Abba-Father is deeply motivated to be our best ally.
When we experience that depth of compassion, we become motivated to give others the same compassion (not condemnation, not retaliation) when they choose sinful lifestyles and justify it while rejecting us.
With the Father’s compassion overflowing from us, we compassionately love those who lash out at us, push us away or abandon us. We become like our Divine Daddy when we yearn for reconciliation and a safe, peaceful, active relationship. We need to remember that they are caught in the terrible cycle of making wrong decisions and feeling the need to justify it. While they are in that cycle, there is little we can do to convince them that we can be their ally.
There will be moments now and then, opportunities that are all too brief, when we can reach across the divide and give the gift of compassion. But until they are ready to break out of the cycle, we will soon be rejected again. We need to wait like the father in the parable, offering to God our yearnings that go so deep they become tears. This is a very powerful prayer.
Tears that are cried during prayer are very valuable, like droplets of diamonds. There’s nothing wrong with getting emotional and pouring our sorrows upon God. When your heart is heavy with grief, Abba expects you to share the burden with him. Give yourself permission to really let it all out, from deep within. The Father cherishes your prayer diamonds. And he cries with you. He waits with you for your prayers to finally be answered.
This is compassion.
The day will come when the waiting finally ends. The prodigal will be spotted while he is still far off and God the Father will go running toward him, taking you along. The Father will dance and rejoice because, at last, he is able to give his love to the one who needed it but feared opening himself up to it.
Take to heart these words by the father of John the Baptist (see Luke 1:78-79):
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The depth of compassion that we feel for those who are hurting themselves is a sharing in the compassion of Father God. Let’s thank him for the experiences that help us to understand the depth of his compassion for us. For when we have suffered like the prodigal son’s dad did, we will feel a tiny, itty bitty portion of what Abba feels — for each of us.
Identify the Father’s daily compassion
List the times when people showed you compassion. Start with childhood memories but include recent occasions.
Then read through your list and say, “When ___ showed me compassion, it was the Father’s compassion for me.”
Don’t rush through this. Meditate on it. Reflect on how you felt each time. The Father’s compassion is all over it, through it, and underscoring it.
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© 2020 by Terry A. Modica
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