I was getting to know a couple new to the Mennonite church who was beginning a church in Bend. In talking about my ministry, one of them mentioned, “How do you live with that? I mean, you must be a very compassionate person and yet so many people suffer.”
I had to think about that. I wonder if I am a compassionate person. Certainly my first reaction to people is not compassion. You can ask folks who call me, asking me to do them a favor, or who interrupt me in the middle of one task for another. I am, to be kind, grumpy. I am not caring about their issues, really, although I try to listen. I certainly wouldn’t say that compassion is my middle name.
There is a set of personality tests, based on characterizations of Carl Jung. They are called the Myers/Briggs or the Kiersy/Bates Tests. They divide people by four opposing characteristics: Introvert/Extrovert; Sensing/Intuitive; Thinking/Feeling; and Judging/Perceiving. I am, in the lingo of these tests, an INTJ. This means that I am first an Introvert—this means that I obtain my energy by being by myself and I am drained by being with other people. It means that I am iNtuitive—that I see the most important reality as being that which is not seen or felt. It means that I am Thinking—that I consider logic as more important than emotion, in myself or others. And that I am Judging—that I see things as right or wrong, that I tend to finish what I start and timeliness is important to me.
In other words, I am some kind of Spock, ignoring people’s feelings, but with my head in the clouds. I am a judgmental jerk and I’d rather that everyone just left me alone. Not exactly a compassionate guy.
The tests emphasize plurality. They want everyone to recognize that everyone else is different, but we are all human, we are all okay. Of course, if you look at my profile, perhaps you would think that I’d be better left in a laboratory or a monastic cell with the key dropped down a well with a sign placed at my door, “Please do not disturb, madman with smallpox inside.”
And, honestly, I find that my initial reactions to folks aren’t characterized by compassionate feelings. My initial thoughts in meeting someone with a need is, “Why don’t you leave me alone, can’t you see I’m busy now?” Or perhaps the Republican line, “You caused your own problems, why don’t you find a way to get out of them?” Or maybe, “Would you just grow up!” I suppose it is good that I keep my thoughts to myself.
So, in reality, my basic nature is that of the judgmental jerk. This applies to myself as well. I beat myself up for the smallest sin, and if I get caught up in a habitual sin than I just wish I could tear my heart out of my chest. I look down on others’ sins, especially those who claim to be Christians. I focus on righteousness, on the right and wrong, on choosing the ethical above all else. I am Immanuel Kant, I am the ethical Spock, I am your dad when he told you to get him a stick.
So you would think that working with the weakest people in the world wouldn’t be my first calling. Wouldn’t I be judgmental against them? Wouldn’t I consider them beneath my notice? Wouldn’t I be overwhelmed by the crises? Well, yes. Except for one thing.
As a Christian ethicist, I am focused on obedience. Obedience to the God I have devoted my life to. Others, who have not devoted themselves to God, need not follow my ethical demands. But those who are committed to the Lord, I have higher demands for. But the one who saved me from myself is Jesus.
Somehow, for some reason, God only knows, I have devoted myself to obedience to the Author of compassion in the West. Jesus is the one who told us “You without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus commanded us, first and foremost to “love your neighbor.” Jesus is the one who commanded all his disciples to “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.” Jesus is the one who said that the repentant is to be forgiven even seven times in a day. Jesus is the one who welcomed sinners and the outcast to form his own church. Jesus is the one who, out of compassion, fed the multitudes, taught the multitudes, healed the sick and raised the dead.
Jesus led the most radical lifestyle of them all. So radical, and so committed to true righteousness was he that the religious leaders of his day had to have him killed and discredited.
So I am committed to righteousness, to an ethical life—the ethics and righteousness of Jesus only. You can have Moses, the lawgiver and David, the warrior, if you want (Although I note that they weren’t raised from the dead). But I chose Jesus, the compassionate; Jesus the friend of sinners; Jesus the political radical; Jesus the evangelist; Jesus the healer; Jesus the lover of all humanity.
Thus am I saved from myself. I am judgmental, but Jesus teaches me to accept. I am an introvert, but Jesus teaches me to love my neighbor. I am a thinker, but Jesus teaches me to respect others’ feelings.
I truly am living in another world. The world around me teaches me to look at people as they are and to judge them for what they should be. Jesus teaches me to look at people as to what they could be and to take them by the hand and to, step by step, show them the way.
So I live a double life. In my heart, I am still a judgmental jerk. I’m only human and that’s my human side, my flesh that is eating me from within. But outwardly, more and more each day, I pray, I am Jesus. Not in looks, but in actions, words and desires.