The God of Exodus is a jealous god, awesome and terrifying. He bathes the Egyptian children in blood, drowns their men in the sea, descends to the earth in fire, and threatens, once again, to blot out Israel for its stiff-necked rebellion. Yet when Moses asks that he may behold God's presence, He answers.
"I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD and the grace that I grant and the compassion I show." (Exodus 33: 19)
And when God does list his attributes, all except one refer to compassion and forgiveness.
"The Lord! The Lord: a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin: yet He does not remit all punishment but visits the iniquity of the fathers upon children, and children's children, upon the third and fourth generation." (Exodus 34: 6-7)
Ours is a God of justice and compassion. Even at this moment of the most grievous sin imaginable, the worship of the Golden Calf, his compassion outweighs his demand for punishment. He visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation, kindness to the thousandth. Perhaps people need compassion, forgiveness and love even more than they require justice. The need for justice is apparent. Our daily newspapers bombard us with stories of oppression, brutality and corruption-from Rwanda and Bosnia to the streets of Chicago and the hallways of Washington. We know that the world is at heart unjust, that the powerful get away with murder and the weak and poor suffer without redress. It is natural to hope that someone is keeping score, that someday, somewhere the balance will finally be made right, equity restored, and
"Every valley shall be lifted up
and every mountain and hill be made low" (Isaiah 40:4)
But suffering may be even more intransigent. No matter how just the world, we would still suffer from disappointed desires, hopes and ambitions, sickness, the loss of those we love, our own deaths.
Suffering isolates. We get together with our friends to laugh, we go off to our room to cry alone. Note people in conversation-on the street, in a restaurant, or when services are finally over and we can go eat-we're always laughing, or at least smiling, even when there is nothing particularly humorous being said. Joy brings us together; we suffer each in our own cell. Suffering seems inexpressible. We have difficulty putting it into words, think that others could never possibly understand, are embarrassed by it, worry that we don't deserve the compassion we crave, even from ourselves. In the face of loss and misfortune we talk of picking ourselves up by our bootstraps, straightening our backs, tightening our lips and bearing stoically.
Given our fear of suffering, our shame over the weakness it suggests, it is a good thing to know that someone is out there listening, that there is a God who cares and loves us even if we are a stiff-necked people. I've always thought it blasphemy to pray for things-for success, or even for happiness. We ought to pray in gratitude for the goodness of the world or in compassion for human suffering. God, remember, is "abounding in kindness to the thousandth generation."