Compassion, Patience, and the Womb of God

Perhaps one of the most difficult fruits of the Spirit for me to receive is patience. Like most people I am perhaps most impatient with myself. I expect too much of my life, my vocation, and my development. My compromised discipleship, my petty concerns, my hesitancy to have my day’s carefully planned agenda interrupted by the unforeseen, and a host of other failings remind me that time is fast running out if I am to be shaped by the Spirit of my Lord. And the people who means the most to me (family and friends) are much too often the recipients of the accumulated frustrations of “a candle burning at both ends.”  Despite what I know about holistic health and how I counsel others, the ability to forgive and accept myself in the context of patient love is a very difficult grace for me to practice.

From what has been written above, one would not be surprised to discover that I also find myself impatient with others. Why this universal obsession with the trivial, the nonessential, the mundane? In a world with so many wounds, why must I hear words like “nigger,” “fag,” “white trash,” “wetback,” and “kike”? Haven’t we learned anything about the dangers of prejudice and intolerance after Auschwitz and Selma? And in a world of hunger and poverty, why must we continue to live as though life does consist in the abundance of possessions? Has it occurred to anyone (certainly not any politician) that the current crisis in “family values” is deeply rooted in what we as a society value most—money, money, money? Sometimes I find myself agreeing with a seminary friend who said the time is fast approaching when it will be easier to lock up all the “sane” persons and let the “insane” have their way with the world. 

And then I find myself impatient with the church. Two thousand years of Christianity should have moved us much farther down the road to the Peaceable Realm than we find ourselves today. Splintered into denominations, the Body of Christ, in the words of Bill Nichols, is broken not for us but by us. We claim to be saved by grace and then return to the same old legalistic spirit when it suits our purposes and prejudices to exclude others from that healing grace. We seem to be guided more by what is expedient than what is faithful. Rarely do churches make monumental decisions involving major expenditures of money, time, and commitment with a “reckless trust” in the will of God as revealed in the life of our Lord. Instead of walking the pilgrim trail of faithful discipleship, we have, for the most part, decided to homestead on the Plain Called Ease and to tarry at Vanity Fair. 

So, what can I (we?) do with all this impatience? Sometimes I feel that a little impatience is not so bad. Perhaps it can even reflect the divine impatience God must feel with Her wayward creation. “Righteous indignation” has served many a good cause in the history of humanity. And in a world where there are hundreds of millions of starving, burning, suffering, and abused children, anyone who cannot be righteously indignant know precious little about the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, perpetual or even predominant impatience with oneself and others is an unhealthy and ultimately damaging way to approach self, world, and the church. 

Perhaps we are helped when we remember that the words “compassion” and “Patience” both have their origins in the word for “suffering” (the Latin pati). We ordinarily think of compassion as the ability to identify with another’s suffering and to enter into solidarity with that person’s lot in life. We think of compassion for the sick, the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the wounded in life. Certainly such compassion is well documented in the Bible both on the parts of God and Her faithful servants. And heaven knows the need for such empathetic compassion in our kind of world. But perhaps we should also consider compassion in terms of God’s patience with us in our stubbornness, prejudice, fears, stumbling, and underdeveloped consciences. 

Will Campbell, in his autobiographical Brother to a Dragonfly, relates a conversation he once had with his friend P. D. East when they had enjoyed perhaps a little too much of the fruit of the vine. East offered this challenge: “In one sentence, tell me the essence of Christianity.” Campbell’s reply surprised even himself: “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Sometime later, Campbell lost one of his best friends who was shot in cold blood by a deputy sheriff in a southern community simply because he was with an African American in a local store. This friend was one of the finest, most loving and gentle human beings Campbell had ever known. And he grieved his loss deeply. Campbell knew that justice would not be pursued in the southern courts during those dark days of the early civil rights movement. Once again Campbell found himself with his friend P. D. East. As they shared a bottle, East asked Campbell if he still believed the essence of “Mr. Jesus’” message was “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Campbell replied that such was still his conviction to which East asked, “You mean you believe that God loves that deputy sheriff as much as the kindest, gentlest man either of us have ever known? 

When Campbell heard those words, the tears began to flow. He said for the first time in his life he had heard the gospel in the core of his being. He knew that if his definition of the essence of Christianity was not true, then there was no gospel—no gospel for the deputy sheriff, for his lost friends who would have been the first to embrace the definition, or for himself. And from that moment on, Campbell began to have compassion (patience?) for all of God’s children—the oppressed African American and the white racists who contributed to that oppression; the poor who suffered from others’ greed and the greedy who suffered from the emptiness of their twisted and withered souls. 

Reflecting upon this incident, I find so much comfort in the words of the psalmist: “God does not deal with us according to our sins… As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who reverence him. For God knows how we are made; God remembers that we are dust.” 

The etymological root behind the Hebrew word for compassion is most interesting. That root means “womb.” Originally compassion referred to the deep love and empathy a mother has for her children and the accompanying love and empathy experienced by those who have shared the same womb. Although the psalmist refers to God as “Father,” the deeper background for compassion is the womb of a Mother. And in a real sense, we have all shared the womb of God. Antecedent to the sin that makes us all “bastards” is the divine womb which envelops us all and affirms us as God’s children. 

New Testament scholar Marcus Born in his book Jesus: A New Vision showed how Jesus ascribed the quality of compassion above all other qualities. Borg argued that Jesus replaced the holiness code admonition “You must be holy just as God is holy” with the Kin-dom code “You must be compassionate just as your Heavenly Father/ Mother is compassionate.” In Jesus day much of his society was determined by that holiness orientation which naturally led to much impatience with those who were not “holy.” But where the emphasis on holiness excluded many, Jesus’ focus on compassion embraced all. The “womb” that envelops us is stronger and greater than our sin and even justifiable divine impatience. 

There is more of a connection between compassion and patience than just a shared etymological root. And the realization and celebration of the connection deep in the womb of God may have far more to do with my discipleship than I ordinarily assume. If I am to benefit from God’s patience, then I must allow myself, others, and the church to benefit not only from heaven’s patience but also from my own—for after all, we share the same womb. And my suspicion is that I may not be alone in the need to plumb the depths of God’s unfathomable, unconditional, and indiscriminate love. 

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