I’ve been a Christian for most of my four and a half decades on this planet—and I finally figured out the one big difference between Jesus and me… OK, so maybe there are a few, but one of the key differences between us is our eyes.
There’s a story in the New Testament, attributed to the disciple Matthew. Jesus is traveling throughout the villages, teaching, preaching, and healing. The writer says that when Jesus saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because He saw that they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Jesus looks at the masses and doesn’t see their “sin.” He doesn’t see their depravity or their flaws, or their failings, or the things He finds objectionable or distasteful. He sees their heart condition; their vulnerability, their inner turmoil—their fear. Jesus’ default response to the crowds is compassion.
This is the big difference between Jesus and me. My default response is more often contempt, especially in an election year.
When I encounter the crowds; when I cross paths with people, whether online or in traffic or in the grocery store or in my neighborhood or in my home, I tend to see with eyes focused on who is upsetting me, where they’re getting it wrong, how much I disagree with them, and the incredible damage they’re doing. I find my impatience growing, my anger welling up, and my heart becoming harder—especially if they aren’t in complete alignment with me on God, guns, sex, money, poverty and public restrooms.
And honestly, this where most of us diverge from Jesus. We don’t see people the way He did. We certainly don’t see our adversaries the way he did. He tells us to love them, to pray for them, and to bless them.
To heck with that.
We prefer to dismiss ours, to shout them down, to shame them, to eviscerate them publicly. That feels better. That feels more like a win. That gives us the cheap, temporary high our fragile egos jones for. It’s not at all of Jesus, but that’s a minor detail. When it comes right down to it, most of us fancy calling ourselves Christians--as long as we don’t have to be inconvenienced by Jesus.
There’s another story where Jesus is teaching in a remote place, surrounded by what would have been a mix of the devoted, the curious, and the skeptical. It’s getting late and the nearest Chick-Fil-A is still 2,000 years away. We’re told that, again, Jesus has compassion for the hungry crowd, and He feeds the multitude with a miraculous meal--all of them. He doesn’t just feed those who agree with Him theologically or align with Him politically. He doesn’t screen the morality of those gathered to decide who is suitable for such hospitality. He doesn’t serve only those who have it all together, those who prove themselves worthy, or those who are “deserving.”
They hunger, and His compassion makes them deserving.
This is a major gut check for we who claim faith in Jesus, especially in an election year. How can we lead with compassion and not contempt when seeing the crowds opposite us. Yesterday I spoke about this at a local church, and then I opened the floor for comments. The first woman to raise her hand said. “I have two words: Donald Trump. How do I love Donald Trump?” I wanted to dismiss the service, or call for immediate silent prayer, or pull the fire alarm—or, at least, phone a friend. I had to wonder whether or not I would serve lunch for Donald Trump? I didn’t like having to consider it. I liked my conclusions even less.
I have the spiritual gift of Agitation. Maybe you do too. Some people are non-confrontational, some are confrontational, and others, like myself—are bionically confrontational. This passion can be helpful, even redemptive. It can help us see injustice and stand up to the bullies, and defend the marginalized, and care for the hurting. It can be a tool of compassion.
The problem is, it can so easily become toxic, so easily become a heart-pollutant, to the point where we’re no longer fighting to right wrongs, or to protect people, or to bring change. We can begin fighting simply to fight…to injure, to damage. This is what happens when contempt replaces compassion as our default response to the crowds.
There are real challenges out there. Just open your eyes and you’ll see them. People will say terrible things and do awful things and act in the most disgusting ways. But, we can’t respond by seeing them as terrible, awful, disgusting people. If we claim faith in Jesus, we need to remember the inherent humanity buried beneath these things and to see them as He did—as fearful, vulnerable, hurting people in need of compassion. Because, if we become so hardened that we see our adversaries with contempt, we will see their fear that often masquerades as hatred, and we will fear them—and meet their hatred with hatred, and we will be in perpetual war with them and within. Jesus’ command to love our enemies doesn’t get an asterisk. It doesn’t exempt us from participation based on who our enemies are, or how reprehensible we believe them to be, or how reprehensible their conduct is.
I honestly don’t know how to love my enemies. I don’t know how to bless and pray for those who curse me. I don’t know how to respond with benevolence to the most malevolent people. Some days, I don’t know how to be a person who is angry and not merely an angry person.
But I look once more at Jesus for a possible answer. He was continually surrounded by the crowds, but He often withdrew to the solitary places to rest and pray. I think He retreated from the crowds, so that when he returned to them He could really see them again…not their behavior or their hatred, but their wounds. We all carry those scars, so this shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. Whatever that retreating looks like for you…whether prayer, mediation, silence, nature, solitude, art or a nap—do it, again and again. Withdraw from the noise and the bombast of the crowds and from the incessant need to protect your ego and defend your ground. When you return to the crowds, and to your adversaries, and to your enemies, you might see first, not their hurtful words and acts, but the hurt beneath them.
Maybe, just maybe, you will default to compassion more than contempt. Maybe you’ll fix them a meal. Maybe you’ll find love for them—no matter who they’re voting for. Dang, this Jesus thing is no joke…
Written by: John Pavlovitz