Monday, September 01, 2008

Loving People More

I was thinking over this long weekend about the smallness of one's attitude. Sometimes, it is a struggle to put up with people simply infatuated with small little details that they forget the big picture. They are so self-focused that they lose sight of the external environment that they live in. They think only of themselves and conveniently presume that the world owes them a living. Truth is, this is a harsh world and hardly anyone bothers what is happening to another, even one's neighbour. If everybody were to live like that, would not life become tough, depressing and utterly lonely. It is so easy to get into skeptical mode that our whole being becomes a living critic.

The Smallness of Humanity
Like a pendulum, we have a tendency to swing our moods between positive and negative thoughts; between hope and despair; between naïveté and skepticism. The difference lies in how long we remain in any one place. Sometimes it is triggered by external events. Bad news drags us down. Good news lifts us up. I wonder if the popular saying "No news is good news" is an escape from the negativity that surrounds us all the time. A former boss of mine once said to me: "This is a cruel world." For most of my adult years, this has largely been true. Since coming to faith in Christ, my perspective has gradually changed. We need not succumb to the world's depressing state of affairs. We need not expose ourselves constantly to the vengeful ways of the world. We need not lift up our hands in despair and surrender ourselves to the elements. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us:

"There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow human beings." (D Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p9)

The Bigness of God's Heart
Bonhoeffer is a prisoner for the Lord during the evil Nazi era. Leading a ragtag group of Christians who protest against the Hitler regime, he charged many German theologians then of pandering to the wishes of Hitler by compromising their theology. Given an opportunity to live a good life as a professor in the US, he chose instead to return to Germany to suffer with his own people. He even led the fight underground against Hitler, involved in an assassination plot. Imprisoned because he refused to toe the official Nazi line, he saw the worst in people. He also felt the love of Christ who constrains him. In his reflections, three things struck me, the third one mine.

Firstly, he realizes the need to see things not from his own perspective but from the perspective of the sufferers. When we see a bad tempered person behind the wheel shouting at the motorist in front, instead of rebuking his impatient behaviour, why not take the time to scan the environment to look for the source of his irritation. Not only will it take the sting out of our own critical stance, but it gives that person room to cool off. Any loud or bad response to a bad tempered man's behaviour is like pouring petrol into flames. Bonhoeffer says it well:

"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."

We are all sufferers in one way or another. Learning to adopt a mode of empathy keeps us at the level of human understanding. It helps to prevent us from being too judgmental from the start. Didn't Christ teach us not to judge, lest we too be judged?

Secondly, Bonhoeffer reminds us that "Nothing that we despise in the other person is entirely absent from ourselves." Indeed, how we react to others is a reflection of what we dislike in ourselves. That can be a shock to some of us, that the very thing we hate about other people, is the very thing that we are struggling to address ourselves. There is a strange connection that exists among human people.

Thirdly, I have learned from my walk with God, that God has a big heart that is large enough to love the world. Sometimes, I see certain prayer requests as frivolous. Philip Yancey describes frivolous prayers as follows:
"Some prayers go unanswered because they are simply frivolous or selfish. 'Lord, please give us a sunny day for the soccer match' trivializes prayer, especially when local farmers may at the same time be praying for rain. A last ditch plea, 'Help me get an A on this next test', will likely not succeed if the pray-er has not studied, just as a chain-smoker has no right to pray, 'Protect me from lung cancer.'
I tend to disagree somewhat with him on the extent of frivolous prayers. I think that even if some 'frivolous' prayers go unanswered, there are others that DO get answered. That is not on the merit of one's effort but is entirely due to God's immense grace. Essentially, God has a big heart. God's big heart determines the answers to prayer, not the rightness of praying. Having said that, it is important that we do not always presume that it gives us a right to live sinfully.

This is comforting. It is not difficult to see the evidence of God's big heart. Despite man's continued rebellion since the infamous disobedience of Adam and Eve at the Garden of Eden, despite Israel's continued rebellion against God; despite the warnings to the chosen people through judges, kings, prophets and many spokespeople for God; despite the continued stubborn hearts of the people, God chose to come to earth, to be incarnated as a human person so that he can reach humanity. He willingly allowed himself to be arrested, whipped, tortured, spat at, rebuked and suffered all manner of undeserved evil. Why? He did not despise humanity. He did not come to judge but to love. He came in the person of Christ, the Lamb of God. Intentionally, willingly and humbly he came. Such a disposition is only possible with a God with a big heart.

Inside, we might protest that we are no where like God. We are not even close to the saints of this world. How can we be expected to have a big heart. Let us take a leaf from Mother Teresa.

"In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

Mother Teresa did many small things with a small built. It is God who weaves all of these little deeds that clothes humanity with the warmth of love. Indeed, we may be sinful in many of our thoughts, but God is merciful to forgive us, as we surrender ourselves and let God work his ways into our lives. Do small things with a big heart. That is the best medicine for a sick world.

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