“… you will enlarge my heart.”
Let’s take some time out
I want to be sure you can picture the scene we have before us. It is almost easy to picture four men sitting, possibly in a circle, having a simple conversation among friends. One fellow does look rather distraught, but overall it is somewhat casual. In reality, it should resemble a very intense gathering in a hospital room in the ward for the terminally ill. The air has the scent of depression and death. It is very sterile and cold. It is not only depressing, but Job does look loathsome. Remember that when these three men first saw Job, they were so stunned by his appearance that they all sat in complete silence for seven days and seven nights.
There are a series of homilies given by Walter J. Burghardt that have been gathered together in a book entitled To Christ I Look. Inside this book, Burghardt retells a story by Canon Barcus where he reports on a Life magazine story published in 1944.
In this issue was a photo essay of a foxhunt in Holmes County, Ohio. The foxes lived in the woods and ate mostly mice and crickets, but sometimes also chicken and quail. This, the story explained, “made the brave men of Holmes County angry because they wanted to kill the quail themselves.” So one Saturday about 600 men, women, and children got together and formed a big circle five miles across. They all carried sticks and started walking through the woods and fields, yelling and baying to frighten the foxes, young and old, out of their holes. Inside this diminishing circle the foxes ran around, tired and frightened. Sometimes a fox would, in its anger, dare to snarl back, and it would be killed on the spot for its temerity. Sometimes one would stop in its anguish and try to lick the hand of its tormentor. It too would be killed.
Sometimes, the photo showed, the other foxes would stop and stay with their own wounded and dying. Finally, as the circle came closer together, down to a few yards across, the remaining foxes went to the center and lay down inside, not knowing what else to do. They laughed and hit these dying animals with their clubs until they were dead, or showed their children how to do it.
This is a true story. Life reported and photographed it in the March 13th 1944, issue. It actually happened for years in Holmes County every weekend.
Today we cringe at such cruelty, yet we have a foxhunt of our own . . . just ask a person who is homeless or those who are afflicted with AIDS. Sadly, too many with AIDS have wondered if they had any alternative but to go to the center of the circle, lie down, and die.
Where are we in that circle? Where are you? Where would Christ be? You see, our hearts of stone will only become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps. Typically, the Evangelical approach to those afflicted with this deadly modern disease has been along the same lines as Eliphaz’s: “They created the problem by their lifestyle, so they are simply receiving their due.”
We, in essence, stand next to their deathbed, cluck our tongues, and shake our heads in disapproval of their lifestyle but never offer any mercy.
AIDS may very well be the “reaping” of one’s own sin. I don’t know. Homosexuality is sin, as well as the promiscuous lifestyles that accompany it. God’s judgment may very well settle the matter, but still the Christian viewpoint should be one of compassion for those who are suffering.
It is not condoning their sin! It is offering them real love and compassion. It is so easy to wash away our responsibility of giving aid and comfort to the suffering and take on the Pharisaic attitude that says, “Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you” (Isaiah 65:5).
We cannot ignore the fact that the verse above goes on to declare that, as far as the Lord is concerned, “such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day.” The issue is compassion. Many are afraid, just as Job’s friends, to help the afflicted because they are afraid to be seen associating with them.
When the gospel is invoked to diminish the dignity of any of God’s children, then it is time to get rid of the so-called gospel in order for us to experience the gospel. Whenever God is invoked to justify prejudice, contempt, and hostility within the Body of Christ, then it is time to heed the words of Meister Eckhardt: “I pray that I may be quit of God and find God.” Our closed human concepts of gospel and God can prevent us from fully experiencing both.
AIDS patients could very easily be compared to the leper. They are outcasts, confined to their own little colony. Whether this treatment is justified isn’t my point. My concern is for the suffering, emptiness, and loneliness they are forced to endure when we could, instead, be offering Jesus to them while we soothe their pain.
We are not here “to condemn the world but to save the world” through Christ. “They are already condemned because they don’t believe.”
I have had several people look me very sternly in the eyes and tell me in no uncertain terms that anyone with AIDS is getting “exactly what they deserve.” Maybe that is true. I am only surprised that none of us has received exactly what we deserve. Every one of us has failed and sinned against God. It is by His grace alone that we still stand and take a breath of air.
In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning told of his outreach to AIDS patients. They provided practical and spiritual care to people living with AIDS, as well as their families and friends.
They assisted with transportation, visiting, light housekeeping and laundry, social outings and other services. One patient’s comment said it all: “My best friend for the last twelve years said to me, ‘I just can’t go through this with you. The grief is unbearable. I’m really frightened.’ To him, I wasn’t Gerald anymore. I wasn’t his best friend. I was Gerald who has AIDS.” He added, “You folks didn’t even know me but you still want to be around me. I like that a lot.”
As Steve Camp has said, “If someone admits to embezzling or adultery, Christians will say, ‘God bless you. Thank you for confessing.’ But if someone says, ‘I have been a practicing homosexual, but I want to be free from it,’ you will see people grab their children and run the other way. Certainly, God’s Holiness can not be compromised, but his mercy should not be restrained.”
As I see it, the Holy Spirit is the bond of tenderness between the Father and the Son. So, the indwelling Spirit bears the indelible stamp of the compassion of God, and the heart of the Spirit-filled person overflows with tenderness. Remember what Paul said in Romans 5:5? “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
As partakers of the divine nature, the noblest aspiration and the most demanding task of our lives is to become like Christ. In this context, Ireneuus wrote that God took on our humanness so that we might become like God. Granted, across the centuries this has meant different things to many different people. If God is viewed primarily as omniscient, growth in wisdom and knowledge becomes the foremost priority of human existence. If God is envisioned as all-powerful, seeking authority in order to influence others is the way to become like God. If God is perceived as immutable and invulnerable, granite-like consistency and a high threshold for pain is the way of godliness.
The life of Jesus suggests that to be like Abba is to show compassion. Donald Gray expresses this: “Jesus reveals in an exceptionally human life what it is to live a divine life, a compassionate life.”
So what should the Christian viewpoint be? What would be the antithesis of the “Eliphaz Syndrome”?
In one of Jesus’ parables, he told us to let the wheat and the weeds grow together. Paul caught this spirit when he wrote in I Corinthians, “Stop passing judgment and wait upon the Lord’s return.” The sons and daughters of Abba are to be the most nonjudgmental people. They are to get along famously with sinners. Remember the passage in Matthew where Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect?” In Luke, the same verse is translated, “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.” Some believe that the two words, perfect and compassionate, can be reduced to the same reality. In other words, to follow Jesus in His ministry of compassion precisely defines the biblical meaning of being perfect as the heavenly father is perfect.
I think the answer could not be better illustrated than by this account from Charles Colson’s book Who Speaks for God?
“At a time when most Americans were panic stricken over the contagious disease or snickering at snide AIDS jokes, Christy [a young woman on his staff] and her prayer group were visiting terminally ill AIDS patients at a Washington area Hospital.
“None of the men had families in the area, and certainly no visitors. So Christy’s group brought them postage stamps, stationary, books, tapes, and cookies. In a prayer memo Christy explained why she visited AIDS victims: ‘They are socially unacceptable because of their lifestyle and medically unacceptable because of their disease. They are scared. They are dying. They are unsaved.’
“… was she afraid? ‘No,’ Christy responded. ‘We believe we are doing the will of God.’
“And of that Christy can be sure. For while the Word doesn’t tell us whether AIDS is a judgment of God, it does demand we care for the sick and have compassion for the suffering. The AIDS sufferers who are waiting to die alone, feared, ostracized, of all people need to hear the Good News of the Gospel.”
Brennan Manning puts this so clearly:
“My identity as a child of God is not an abstraction or a tap dance into religiosity. It is the core truth of my existence. Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness profoundly affects my perception of reality, the way I respond to people and their life situations. How I treat my brothers and sisters from day-to-day, whether they be Caucasian, African, Asian, or Hispanic; how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike; how I deal with ordinary people in their ordinary unbelief on an ordinary day will speak the truth of who I am more poignantly than a pro-life sticker on the bumper of my car.
“This is the unceasing struggle of a lifetime. It is the long and painful process of becoming like Christ in the way I choose to think, speak, and live each day. Henri Nouwen’s words are incisive here: ‘What is required is to become the Beloved in the common places of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinaries of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about, and dong from hour to hour.
“Out of all honesty, the betrayals and infidelities in my life are too numerous to count. I still cling to the illusion that I must be morally impeccable, other people must be sinless, and the one I love must be without human weakness. But whenever I allow anything but tenderness and compassion to dictate my response to life—be it self-righteous anger, moralizing, defensiveness, the pressing need to change others, carping criticism, frustration at others’ blindness, a sense of spiritual superiority, a gnawing hunger of vindication—I am alienated from my true self. My identity as Abba’s child becomes ambiguous, tentative and confused.
“Our way of being in the world is to be the way of tenderness. Everything else is illusion, misperception, falsehood.
“The compassionate life is neither sloppy goodwill toward the world nor the plague of what Robert Wicks calls “chronic niceness.” It does not insist that a widow become friendly with her husband’s murderer. It does not demand that we like everyone. It does not wink at sin and injustice. It does not accept reality indiscriminately—love and lust, Christianity and atheism, Marxism and capitalism.
“The way of tenderness avoids blind fanaticism. Instead, it seeks to see with penetrating clarity. The compassion of God in our hearts opens our eyes to the unique worth of each person. Or as Robert Wicks said: The other is ‘ourself’: and we must love him in his sin as we were loved in our sin.”
If you are interested, you can download the whole study of Job.
Other Bible Studies and Commentary are available at Doulos Studies.