Saturday, April 22, 2017
We stumble in our attempts at compassion in three significant ways.
First, we have difficulty because of our intense need to be justified, a need rooted in our craving to be liked and accepted. Many things we think we do for others are in fact the expressions of our drive to discover our identity in the praise of others. Writes Thomas Merton: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions...his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”
Second, activism. We end up doing things for others for the sake of doing, for the sake of ourselves. This kind of activism gathers merit badges. It is motivated by guilt, by the feeling of being indebted, by the sense of having to earn righteousness or favor—from God or others. Activism ultimately places our own unmet longings at the center of our efforts. It therefore does not help others in a wholesome way.
The more we try to justify ourselves, the more we collide with our inability to do so. The more burdens we take on, the more we burden others with our unmet needs. Is it any wonder that our words do not help and our presence does not heal? Merton: “All the good you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.”
This happens only with a conviction that God remains active in the world. God acts—always, every moment—in our community and our world. Activism comes from an unbelief that insists that god does not or cannot move and act; it wants to replace God's supposed slowness or inaction with our activity. But we should intend that what we do to help and serve and minister does not create in the absence of God, but respond to what God is already bringing into being.
Prayer, which puts us in contact with this God regularly, makes others into something more than characters to be criticized, judged, and misjudged. It makes them into more than objects of pity or “projects” in need of our wonderful gifts. It rather helps us see them as persons to be received—loved with a love implanted in us and already at work in the world.
Third: competitiveness. On very subtle levels we compete without wanting to, often without realizing it. We compare ourselves to others and worry about what others think of us even when we are serving others. We wonder if we serve better than someone else. We import a drive to achieve into our works of mercy.
We do this so much that we even sometimes form our identities in comparison to others; we certainly never completely admit the possibility of giving up our sense of difference, of entering where others are weak, of sharing with another's pain. We have too much of ourselves and our ambitions to defend to easily allow that.
We discover, then, that for all our good intentions, compassion does not form the true basis of our lives. Compassion does not come as our spontaneous response but goes against the grain. We might wonder if it is humanly possible!
Such a view has a healthy consequence. Compassion in its fullest sense can be attributed only to God. It is the central message of the gospel that God, who in no way is in competition with us, is the One who can be truly compassionate. It is because Jesus was not dependent on people, but only on God, that he could be so close to people, so concerned, so confronting, so healing, so caring. He related to people for their own sake, not his own. To say it in more psychological terms, he paid attention without intention. His question was not “How can I receive satisfaction?” but “How can I respond to your real need?” This is possible only when there is a deeper satisfaction, a deeper intimacy from whence attention can be paid. Your love for others can be unconditional, without a condition that your needs are gratified, when you have the experience of being loved.
When I remember those who most influenced me, I am always surprised to discover that these are people who did not try to influence me, who did not need my response. Instead they radiated a certain inner freedom. They made me aware that they were in touch with more than themselves. They pointed to a reality greater than themselves from which and in whom their freedom grew. This centeredness, this inner freedom, this spiritual independence had a mysterious contagiousness.
Real ministry starts taking place when we bring others in touch with more than we ourselves are—the center of being, the reality of the unseen—the Father who is the source of life and healing.