On Sundays, all of us say or sing with the Assembly:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible (Nicene Creed).
Now, if I believe in “one God” does it really matter what sort of God I believe in? Well, yes it does. The sort of God I believe in determines how I live my life. It will influence my spiritual life and my behavior. It will impact how I view others and how I view the whole world.
I grew up believing in a God of the law. I believed God gave us laws by which we were to live our lives. I believed it was the role of biblical scholars and the bishops and the priests to interpret these laws.
I grew up believing that if I obeyed God’s laws I was pleasing to God. If I obeyed these laws, I would be rewarded with a place in heaven. Therefore, it was stressed that I must promote a spirituality that had a great focus on the afterlife.
I also believed growing up that if I disobeyed those laws God would be angry. I believed God would punish me. God, for me, was a sort of judge who dispensed justice according to his laws. God was more interested in punishing me than in rewarding me.
Then, in later years, I got a bit confused and conflicted. I discovered in the Sacred Scriptures that Jesus broke laws. Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. Healing was considered work. And work was forbidden on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was for rest.
I knew too that ultimately Jesus was crucified because the religious authorities believed that Jesus was undermining the faith of the ordinary Jews. They thought that if Jesus continued to break the laws God’s anger would come down on the whole nation.
Of course, Jesus justified his breaking of the law by telling the people that our God was not a God of the law but a God of compassion. He would say that God’s passion was compassion for all. “What I want is mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7).
For the God of the law, sin consists in the breaking of the law. The big focus is on how I live my personal life. It promotes a spirituality, which is focused on the afterlife. It has a focus on how I am going to get to heaven. It is a spirituality that is inward looking. I must listen to those who interpret the laws for me.
For the God of compassion sin consists in causing hurt to other people. Sin is living without compassion and care for others. We can do this by what we do or by what we fail to do. It is a spirituality that has an outward looking focus. It is a spirituality that opens our hearts to a compassionate inner-guiding voice.
The God of compassion is focused primarily on how we live on this universe as the one people of God. He wants us to listen to the pains and hurts and hungers of those around us and then respond to them. “You must be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:16).
The God of compassion is far more demanding than the God of the law. The God of compassion challenges us to respond to the state of the world. He calls us to be just and peaceful and eliminate the hunger and homelessness in our world. He calls us to welcome into our midst those who have been marginalized by our society.
The God of compassion reminds me that the state of my soul is intrinsically linked to the state of the world. It is linked to the cries of the homeless on our streets. It is linked to my capacity to internalize and feel with passion the pain and heartache that is all around me.
I am challenged to feel the compassion and the love of God in the core and center of my being. Only then can I become the compassion and love of God for others. This inner felt compassion of God can transform my relationship with the world and me.
I strive for some degree of the conviction and profound awareness that St. Paul embraced with regard to the God of compassion when he writes:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life
Nor angels, nor principalities
Nor present things, nor future things
Nor powers, nor height, nor depth
Nor any other creature will be able to separate us
From the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Rom 8; 37-39)
Msgr. Thomas J. Morgan is a retired priest of the Diocese of Camden.