Experience Making a Difference

Experience Making a Difference

God, in Whose Image We Are Made, Is Compassion

by | Nov 19, 2013

This piece, by IVC Spiritual Reflector Fr. William Barry, SJ, is a reflection on the spiritual readings and guide being used by IVC volunteers across the country.

I have been asked to write a reflection to accompany our reading of chapters two and three of Tattoos on the Heart. What follows is adapted from one of my books that reflects on how being a friend of God changes our world, for the better. I hope it is helpful.

The Hebrew word translated as “compassion” or “pity” is related to the Hebrew word for “womb,” and in the Hebrew bible is almost a definition of who God is. So the compassion Greg Boyle speaks about is womb love. It’s the kind of love a mother has when she risks herself for her child. Actually, the very act of carrying a child in the womb is an act of compassion because the woman gives something of herself to bring this child into the world. Compassion is defined by a deep feeling of empathy and love for another and the willingness to risk oneself for the sake of the other. When the word was translated into Greek, it became something like “gut love,” and that word is used often to describe how Jesus felt. For example, in Mark 1:40–41 we read: “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity (gut love), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’” In touching the leper Jesus takes the chance of getting the disease himself and becomes ritually unclean. God has such womb or gut love for the human family that God risks self for us. God risks our non-cooperation in the great work of building up of the kingdom of God as one example. And every time God forgives us, the risk is that we will once again break God’s heart. Most importantly, God takes the risk of becoming a human being for love of us wayward, often inhuman human beings and suffers the consequences. What does this attribute of God tell us about our life in the real world?

In Luke’s Gospel a lawyer tests Jesus by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him about the Law, and the lawyer cites the great commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. The story continues: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Jesus replies with the parable known as the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:29-37).

The story shows us three people created in the image of God, and their reactions to a fellow human being in trouble. The two Jewish religious leaders pass by their fellow Jew who has been mugged and robbed on a very dangerous road. Because they are images of God, we can presume that their hearts were stirred at least a little to help this man; that is, they must have felt stirrings of womb or gut love. But they did not act on this stirring of the heart. Perhaps they were afraid that they themselves would be mugged and robbed, or even that the man on the side of the road was part of a gang of robbers trying to lure them to stop. Perhaps they feared that he was dead and that they would be contaminated by touching him; touching a dead man would make them ritually unclean and, therefore, unable to perform their religious duties. At any rate they passed up the opportunity to help a fellow Jew in trouble. But the Samaritan, “moved with pity” (compassion or womb love) for this poor Jew, stopped to take care of him. He risked being mugged and robbed himself, and he lost time and money in order to care for this man who, we need to remind ourselves, belonged to an enemy people. At the end Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” In effect, Jesus is asking him whom he would want as a neighbor if he were the mugged Jew.

Our neighbor is any human being who needs our help. God is moved with compassion, womb love, for any human being in need; those of us made in God’s images are also moved with such compassion. But we must act on these movements of compassion to be images of God. When we act on them, we transform the real world in ways that are often hidden from our eyes.

In our work as volunteers and in our lives in general, God counts on our willingness to be moved by these stirrings of our hearts and to act on them. In Tattoos on the Heart we meet many homies who have moved from disgrace to grace because people like Greg Boyle acted on the womb or gut love they felt for them. Let’s do the same for the people we meet every day.

(Adapted from a section of my book Changed Heart, Changed World)


Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England.  He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Presently he resides at Campion Center where he is co-director of a nine month Jesuit Tertianship Program and gives retreats and spiritual direction. He is the author or co-author of 15 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, With An Everlasting Love, and Contemplatives in Action with Fr. Robert Doherty. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.