I’m not sure if this is a common theme of most people or just one of my odd quirks, but I always seem to be struggling between not caring and caring too much. I either shut myself off from the world and refuse to feel anything, or I become overwhelmed with emotions for everyone and everything I see. I either see a tragic news story and cynically wonder how much of the story isn’t being told, or I begin crying because of all the suffering and hurt. It is literally either “I really don’t care what happens to anyone” or “my heart is breaking for the world.” And lately my attitude has been more along the lines of my favorite grumpy cat meme which goes, “Here is my cup of care: _/. Oh look, it is empty.” And I know I can at least partially justify this to myself because the world seems to have an abundance of people who deserve any empty cup of care.
And then this morning happened. There are those sermons which God seems to be directing right at you. Sometimes you resist—you squirm in your seat and try to list all the other people you know who really need to hear this message. But today wasn’t like that. Today it was more like 30 seconds into the sermon I grabbed my notebook and proceeded to write straight through the next 45 minutes to capture every single word because I needed to hear it so badly. And since there’s nothing like reminding yourself of everything again I decided to do a blog post. (If you want to listen to the sermon, here’s the link.)
Matthew 9:35-38, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Think about Christ’s life. How he would steal away to a quiet place and be followed by eager crowds. How he could never escape the constant demands for his words, his healing, and his attention. On this occasion in Matthew when he saw the crowds, it would have been easy for him to complain and to look down on them. He could have seen them as voracious creatures grasping for his time and energy. He could have seen them as filthy sinners not worthy of a second glance. But what did He see? He saw broken and lost people—sheep without a shepherd.
Life can wear down Christians. We can get exhausted and weary. But we have the promises of God. We have the throne of grace. If we are lost it is only because we are rejecting the help God offers. The world doesn’t have this. I occasionally think about what it would be like if I were not saved. It is usually a short-lived thought experiment because it quickly becomes too horrible for contemplation. What would it be like to wake up and believe I came from nothing and I am going to become nothing? That there is no purpose for my life, that it is a sound and a fury—signifying nothing? That everything simply happens by uncontrollable chance? That there is no hope outside myself and there is certainly no hope within? That every happy moment and every painful moment just “happens” and there’s no reason for it all? And after thinking about this for a few minutes I can suddenly understand why suicide rates are so high—it is the only answer to an absurd and hopeless existence.
But how often do we truly look at the lost people of the world like this? Do we see them as people of despair? Or do we see them as objects to be used for our own agenda? Or things that just get in our way? I’m pretty sure I hold the world record for impatience. Once in a while I can be good at waiting for others. Most of the time I demand that they match my speed in everything, or else I’ll just leave them behind. Sometimes I’m so busy trying to get somewhere, whether it is finishing a project at work, solving a mental problem, or simply getting home, that any obstacle—no matter how minor—will cause an insane amount of rage. “How could you not finish that task in 10 minutes? I want to get all of this done by 2pm today!” or “I can’t believe you are driving 30 in a 35 mph speed zone! Come on, people!” I usually turn my rage inward and it just eats me up inside, rather than terrifying everyone around me, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
Christ could have come to earth with an attitude like, “okay, so I promised to do this from before the dawn of time, but let’s get it over with.” He could have lived His life in impatience to cross the task off his list and be done with all these pesky humans. Yet he became flesh and dwelt among us. Or in other words, he tabernacled in our midst. He spent every moment of his life serving others. Was this necessary? Well, yes. He had to give everything because he came to demonstrate God’s character to us. In dwelling among us and in sacrificing all comfort to help others, he was showing us what God is like. So if Christ looked at the multitude and had compassion it is because God has compassion. What would God be like without His mercy? He would be a terrifying deity of infinite power, holiness, justice, and wisdom. We would have awe—but no comfort. We would have fear—but no love. It is God’s grace which sets Him apart from the capriciously cruel gods of ancient civilizations. It is His mercy which sets Him apart from the distant and uncaring god of the Deists.
What if Christ treated those crowds like we treat each other? We will painstakingly list every fault of the people around us. We are so busy remembering their iniquities we forget God’s mercy to us. We demand perfection and then cast judgement when they inevitably fail to meet our standards. We open our mouths to utter condemnation—conveniently forgetting each breath we take is a gift from God. We shake our fists at the people around us–not realizing God gave us these hands to offer grace. We store up stones like treasure, waiting until that perfect moment to hurl them at an unsuspected loved one. We manipulate and abuse–knowing so well the closer we are to someone, the more power we have to hurt them. If we can do this, think of how Christ could have revealed every sin of every person in that multitude? If we, finite and ignorant as we are, glory in our knowledge of other people’s shortcomings, how much more could Christ have condemned each of them—knowing all of their secret sins?
What did He do instead? He had compassion. He cared about them. He reached out to them. He let them touch him. He gave everything for them, culminating in that final work of grace on the cross. Christ’s life was one of service to the people around him. Were those people wonderful and nice? Maybe sometimes. Probably rarely. Because our nature doesn’t change too much. And if there are enough annoying people in the world today, I’m sure Christ encountered plenty of them. But that was no excuse for Jesus. He had compassion for everyone. And he served them all. The Lord and Creator of the universe spent his life on earth serving people. Not just the pleasant people who make it easy for us to be kind. The people we probably want to slap. The people who don’t “deserve” our service. And what does this mean for us? If our Savior did this, then so ought we. For we cannot serve God if we do not serve people.
The people around us are crying out for mercy. No, they don’t come out and say it, but it is there, a desperate undertone in their life. Because this world is so very hard and unforgiving. It is covered up in so many ways, but “at the end of the day you’re another day older…And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. One more day standing about, what is it for? One day less to be living. There’s a reckoning still to be reckoned and there’s gonna be hell to pay at the end of the day!” I quote Les Mis intentionally because it is a poignant story of grace. In the harsh setting of this story, Jean Valjean’s pardon and his consequent grace to those around him is so powerful and moving. Because the world is cruel and empty, we have the opportunity to demonstrate God’s compassion to those around us. This means we must open our hearts and allow ourselves to feel their pain. Why is Christ our mediator before the throne of God? Because he became like us. He knows what it means to cry and mourn. He knows what it means to hurt and ache. He knows the weariness of life. He knows the tempting of darkness and despair. And Christ didn’t erase these experiences from his memory when he returned to Heaven. Because he still has that knowledge, he can represent us before God. In a much smaller way we must share in the experiences of those around us. It can hurt like crazy. But that’s no excuse to shut ourselves away. It is easy to be cynical and uncaring. It is hard to keep caring in a world full of hurt. It is easy to distance ourselves. It is hard to open ourselves to the pain, and yet keep on believing. Because we can either stop caring or let the pain consume us until all we see is suffering. The Christian must live the balance of entering into the world’s hurt and holding onto the promises of God. And by God’s grace we shall.
Note: Title is taken from Did Your Heart Break? by The Brilliance