God is Compassionate even to the Unlovely and Unlovable by Henri Nouwen

God is Compassionate even to the Unlovely and Unlovable by Henri Nouwen

The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” published in 2001:

God is Compassionate even to the Unlovely and Unlovable (86-90)

     The message of the gospel brims with compassion, with a love that willingly “suffers with,” even with those we do not naturally likeJesus reveals to us through His words and actions, but most of all through His life and death, that God is love, even toward the unlovely and unlovable. Jesus calls us to make this divine love the basis of our lives. “This is My commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

     The full implications of this call to love are hard to grasp. The kind of love Jesus calls us to includes the enemy, not just the friendly neighbour. Such love may in many ways run counter to our desires, needs, or expectations. Our understanding of love is so strongly influenced by ideas from interpersonal human relationships—personal attraction, mutual compatibility, sexual desires, cultural understandings of sensitivity—that we have trouble realising that the love of God goes far beyond these.

     During the course of Christian history, love of enemies has been often seen as the core of sanctity. Staretz Silouan, a twentieth-century Greek Orthodox monk, wrote, “If you pray for your enemies, peace will come to you. And when you love your enemies, take for certain that great divine grace dwells in you.”

     The test of love is our forgiveness of enemies; just as Jesus forgave (Luke 23:34), so are we to. Just as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, followed his Lord when being stoned, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). This is not easy, of course, largely because of the ways we continue to crave attention, affection, influence, power, even after hearing God’s word that we are His beloved. These needs are born from our wounds and never seem to be satisfied. When we try to find an explanation for these wounds, we discover how they have been inflicted on us by people who are needy people themselves. Through the generations there seems to run a chain of wounds and needs. And when we try to avoid inflicting wounds ourselves, we discover that even with our best intentions we cannot avoid encountering people who feel rejected, misunderstood, or hurt by us.

     Thus there seems to be a long chain of interlocking wounds and needs that stretch back into the long past and forward into our future. This picture drives us to turn love into a kind of mechanical exchange: “I will love you if you love me; I will give to you if you give to me; I will lend to you if you give me the same amount.” As long as we continue to search for our deepest sense of who we are among other people, we will end up dividing the world into people who are for us and people who are against us, people who accept us and people who reject us—friends and enemies.

     The gospel liberates us from the chain of wounds and needs by revealing to us a compassion that can do more than react out of the needs that grow from our wounds. It does so by bringing us into contact with an acceptance that precedes any human acceptance or rejection. And this original love is all-embracing; it holds the power to love enemies as well as friends, the power to allow us to love in that way. This is the love that makes us be sons and daughters of the “Most High,” who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35). “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

     When our love grows from God’s love we no longer divide people into those who deserve it and those who don’t. It is this love that allows us to see the enemy as someone loved with the same love with which we are loved. We need no longer define ourselves over and against the other. To love as Christ loved means a participation in the divine love that does not know a distinction between friend and enemy. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “An overpowering love which seeks nothing in return, agape, is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love people not because we like them nor because they possess some type of divine spark; we love all human beings because God loves them.”

     We remember that in one sense enemies are enemies only by our insistence on excluding them in our hearts from the love of God. “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate,” Jesus tells us. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:36-37)

     And here we learn yet another lesson: how God’s divine love reduces us to humility, a kind of inner poverty. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Note that He did not say, “Blessed are those who care for the poor” (though He certainly commented elsewhere those who helped the “least” and the needy). In one sense, everyone in the body of Christ is poor. But when we come together in mutual poverty, in shared vulnerability, we offer to and receive from one another.

     In our poverty hides great blessing, for God decided to reveal God’s glory in vulnerability and brokenness, not in commanding presence or manipulative authority. That is what the Cross teaches us anew. When John the Evangelist beheld the broken Christ of the crucifixion, he saw blood and water coming from Christ’s side (John 19:34). And we too perceive a gift flowing from the broken body that gave life, that will give new life to our communities and our relationships. We will suffer, and suffer with one another, but in doing so we will uncover nothing less than th presence of a God whose consolation keeps us going.

     Pains suffered alone feels very different from pains suffered alongside another. Even when the pain stays, we know how great the difference if another draws close, if another shares with us in it. This kind of comfort comes most fully and powerfully visible in the Incarnation, wherein God comes into our midst—into our lives—to remind us, “I am with you at all times and in all places.” In Christ God draws near us amid our sufferings—the pain of infants or adolescents, the hurts of young adults or the aged, the griefs of the unemployed and the suddenly single person. There is no human suffering that has not in some way been part of God’s experience. That is the great and wonderful mystery of God becoming flesh to live among us. God becomes a part of our mourning and invites us to learn to dance—not alone, but with others, sharing in God’s own compassion, as we both give and receive it. 


Are we compassionate? Do we have what it takes to be compassionate?Do we have compassion in our hearts? Because compassion is love that willingly “suffers with” the person in pain. Maybe I need to pray: ‘Lord Jesus, make me an instrument of Your compassion,’ in order that I will, willing, face the challenge of taking the following compassionate actions: 


·        Permit him/her to grief his/her pain (or suffering)

·        Be fully presence to his pain

·        Go and share his pain with him

·        Enter and face his pain with him

·        Stand and bear his pain with him

·        Stay and endure his pain with him


·        Look away from his pain

·        Walk away from his pain

·        Run away from his pain

·        Flinch from his pain

·        Deny him his pain

·        Dismiss his pain

·        Avoid his pain

·        Evade his pain 

·        Ignore his pain

·        Reject his pain

Jesus shows us the way of compassion, not only by what He says, but also by how He lives. The following passages and verses are examples, on compassion, taken from the Bible (NKJV).

1.  Parable of the Good Samaritan

    “’And who is my neighbor?’ Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”(Luke 10:29-37)

2.  Parable of the Prodigal Son

     Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and hadcompassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. ‘And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:11-32)

3. Harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few

     Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38)

4. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was.(Hebrew 5:1-4)

5. Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

6. He has made His wonderful works to be remembered; The LORD is gracious and full of compassion. He has given food to thosewho fear Him; He will ever be mindful of His covenant.(Psalms 111:4-5)

7. Unto the upright there arises light in the darkness; He is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.(Psalms 112:4)

8. The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The LORD is good to all, And His tender mercies are over all His works.(Psalms 145:8-9)

9.”Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.(Isaiah 49:15)

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