She stands with a shell shocked look in her eyes, tears streaming down. Her hands fall limp to her sides and her hair is disheveled and in her eyes and blowing across her face. Her lovely olive complexion and beautiful almond shaped brown eyes are marred by the devastation surrounding her. The beach is a decimated, miserable place. It looks like someone turned it into the local dump, but days before this was a humble sea shore with homes and boats and picturesque docks for fishermen and children alike. Tsunami.
Thousands of miles to the west, a family mourns. They huddle around a young man, who used his body as a message board to protest the government. Somehow in the clash of crowd control, he was beaten savagely and a blow to the head ended his young life. He was a beloved big brother and friend to many. He was someone's son and now he is gone. War.
You can't be near a computer or television these days without hearing about the suffering in Libya, Japan, or some other disaster-torn nation in the world. It's upsetting and horrifying and for the most part, doesn't seem real. Here I am, carrying on with my life and my family, and the suffering of thousands of people on the other side of the world seems like it could be suffering on another planet altogether!
I struggle with the appropriate response. There are moments when the suffering gets to me, and my heart wants to break as I empathize with the pain of families - mothers, fathers and children who are torn apart in tragedy. My prayers mingle with my tears and heartache.
Other days I hardly think of it. I turn away from the news articles and broadcasts on tv. It is just another day in the world - this screwed up world. I can't help. I can't fix it. Why should I bother to carry the burden of someone I will never meet?
I found myself really questioning what the Christian response should be to the current events in the news. For one thing, we are in a time like no other. The technological connection we have with others on this planet means that we can hear about a tragedy moments after it has occurred. We can plant ourselves on the front lines emotionally with the sights and sounds of suffering. I hardly think this is a healthy or natural thing, but this is what the internet and satellites and Facebook and Twitter have given to us.
Sometimes I wonder if I should just shut it off and ignore it all. I certainly have enough in my own "world" to handle. But I don't think that is the answer, and if we have any hope of affecting people for the better, of pouring out any measure of compassion on humanity's suffering - then we must not close ourselves off and harden our hearts.
If we consider how Jesus lived on this earth, we know His heart was touched by the suffering and pain He encountered everywhere. Matthew 14:14 says: "And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick." He routinely got in trouble with the religious Pharisees for healing the sick on the Sabbath. He saw the need, and would rather reach out in love (which is the ultimate law) than try to impress people with how religious he could act. He was known to spend time with drunkards, prostitutes, tax collectors (the bane of society!) and was continually in the company of the poor. The people who followed Jesus weren't typically the rich, uppity people - but those who were downtrodden, blue-collar, poor, nothing-better-to-do individuals. Sometimes they just hung around to see what miracle he would do next and to get a free meal! So what I'm really getting at here, is that Jesus was a compassionate person. I think if Jesus had come in a more technologically advanced time, He'd be tweeting all about the issues of today! Hmm... there's a new one: WWJT? What Would Jesus Tweet?
I think it's pretty fair to say that most people know there is a difference between pity and compassion. But for comparison's sake, let's look at their definitions:
Pity: sympathy or sorrow felt for the sufferings of another
Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering
Pity is normal - we all feel sorry for others at some point in life. Compassion moves beyond pity and desires to be a helping hand, to effect change. Jesus didn't spend His life on earth feeling sorry for people, He always offered them hope, and enabled them to change.
So we're left wondering just what we can do - how on earth do we show compassion to people on the other side of the world? Should we do anything at all?
The second most important commandment in the Bible, next to loving God, is to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31) Are the suffering Japanese people our neighbor? Is war-torn Libya our neighbor? (I won't even get into the details of loving our neighbor here at home, that's another topic for another blog!)
I would argue that if you have the ability to observe the suffering of another individual, you are close enough to be their neighbor. When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, He talked of how various people walked by a robbed, beaten man on the road. The first two, although maybe more culturally obligated to this man, looked the other way and dismissed themselves from the need. They chose not to help. The Samaritan, a man who was not religiously inclined to do the right thing, had compassion. Jesus finished the story by saying: "So which of these three do you think was a neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" (Luke 10:36) The generous man acted as a neighbor, thus fulfilling the law of love.
I think because we aren't physically close to the suffering, that perhaps we can argue that we are not responsible for these people, and we are not their "neighbor". But I don't believe that is the Christian response we ought to take. My concern is that every time we close ourselves off to the needs and suffering of others, even those who are far away, we are hardening our hearts and inhibit the compassion of God from flowing from us in our local sphere of influence.
Living compassionately means being willing to become "inconvenienced" by the problems of others. It means taking your valuable time and effort, and quite possibly your money, and giving it with no expectation of return.
This challenges me to not ignore the situation, and to be willing to become involved. Firstly, it is always within my ability to pray for others; to pray for relief from their suffering. Yet in offering up a prayer, I think I ought to be willing to ask "What should I do, Lord?" He may not always have a specific task in mind. He may not be leading me to give money to every charity and every problem. But I believe it is an essential element of my Christian walk to consider the need and ask if I should do something. It is essential that I have a willingness.
To sum up my thoughts, I think it is legitimate to realize we can only help according to our ability. I know that you could give and give and give everything you have, and there would still be thousands of other problems that could use your money or time and help. I noticed something in the book of Acts that seems to help with this issue:
One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. -Acts 11:28, 29
In this situation, they were called upon to help others - but the key is that they helped "each according to his ability". This is practical advice, and makes a lot of sense.
In the end, I still am still stuck with the emotional aspects of caring for others. This is difficult. This is inconvenient. I don't know how I can hope to reconcile in my mind all the cares and pain of this world. I can't. But I will keep on caring. I will allow my heart to be moved by compassion; to help according to my ability and conviction.