Sometimes Compassion Comes In Unexpected Packages

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(Adapted from Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides)

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to Christianity, especially among those who are drawn to the idea of a loving, compassionate God, is the Bible’s teaching on judgment.

Jesus, who was full of compassion and gave his life because God so loved the world, spoke more about judgment than most other subjects. He could not have been more clear that an excluding verdict awaits those who, in pride and self-sufficiency, exclude themselves by dismissing his generous offer of salvation by grace through faith (Matthew 5:22; John 3:16-18). And yet, the same Jesus got very upset with anyone who wished judgment on others (Luke 9:51-56). Though divine justice demands payment for sin, his desire is that all would turn to him and find shelter from the wrath to come. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, including “the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23).

Jesus, at whose cross “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love,” perfectly balanced judgment with compassion.

A disorienting truth

Glasses Back HeadThe idea of judgment can be uncomfortable and disorienting. Matters are made worse when well-intentioned but deeply misguided religious folk express enthusiasm about judgment, leaving others hesitant to discuss this subject in any context at all. When believers do unChristian things “in the name of Christ”— whether it be Jesus’ disciples seeking revenge on Samaritans, Peter cutting off the ear of one of Jesus’ betrayers, a fundamentalist minister blaming “the homosexuals” for the September 11 terrorist attacks, or a fringe group falsely identifying as Christian parading around the country with “God hates you” signs—such behavior make it difficult for thoughtful, compassionate believers to raise the subject of judgment at all.

Nobody wants to be judged. In fact, most of us are terrified of being judged. And most of us are very reluctant, as we should be, to judge others. We want to be known for showing compassion and understanding. We want to show nothing but grace and love to everyone.

And so we get stuck sometimes with how, exactly, we are supposed to live with that line in The Creed that says Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. That he will separate sheep from goats and wheat from weeds. That there is an everlasting torment, a lake of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and (gulp) a great many will spend eternity there. And the lover in us asks, why can’t everyone escape this horror?

The idea of heaven is easy to embrace. Even at a nonreligious funeral, mourners are known to comfort each other with words such as, “She is in a better place now.” Conversely, for many the scriptural doctrine of damnation has become damnable. Charles Darwin once put to words what many of us naturally feel:

I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [biblical] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.[1]

If I’m honest with myself, I find myself sharing Darwin’s sentiment. I don’t want judgment to be true. And yet, I am left to wrestle with Jesus’ many words emphasizing that indeed, it is true.

And then, in moments of clarity, I am reminded of how necessary—even compassionate—this doctrine of judgment can be for us in the here and now.

Compassionate judgment

When the Bible’s teaching about judgment is dismissed, all victims of injustice, violence, and oppression are then put at risk. If God is a God of love without the accountability of justice, then vulnerable people are made more vulnerable, and bullies are encouraged to continue bullying.

If there is no ultimate accounting for evil, what do we say to the Jews about Hitler? What do we say to little girls who have been sold into the sex trade by greedy, oppressive scoundrels? What do we say to the boy who is abused by his father, or the unassuming widow who is taken advantage of and stolen from? It’s too simplistic to merely say that our God is a God of love and nothing else. If God decided to put his gavel down once and for all, don’t we see that this would create many more problems than it would solve? If a judging God did not exist, then we would be living in a world of Darwinian chaos in which the strong eat the weak and only the powerful survive.

Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who is very familiar with the impact of injustice on victims, believes that in order to fight injustice, we must believe in a God who holds bullies accountable for their bullying. In his masterpiece, Exclusion and Embrace, he delivers a hard truth to those of us who want a God of love with no judgment:

My thesis…will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West…I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone…Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.[2]

This should hit us mostly-sheltered and cozy folks right in the chest.

For love to be truly loving, there must be judgment. If there is no judgment, then there is really no hope for a slave, a rape victim, a child who has been abused or bullied, or people who have been slandered or robbed or had their dignity stolen from them. If nobody is called to account before a cosmic judgment seat for violence and oppression, then the victims will not see justice, ever. We need a God who gets angry. We need a God who will protect his kids, who will once and for all remove bullies and perpetrators of evil from his playground.

“How much do you have to hate somebody…?”

One WayJesus spoke so much about eternal fire and brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the everlasting miseries of hell precisely because he loves us. His warnings about judgment are a compassionate invitation to flee beneath the shadow of his wings for shelter and refuge. He talks so much about God’s wrath because he desires earnestly that we never have to taste it.

In the end, one of the most loving things we can do is compassionately voice the truth that hell, just like heaven, is for real. Consider the words of Penn Jillette, an atheist comedian:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?[3]

If we believe in God, and if we love the people God places around us, then we are at some point going to have to risk social awkwardness and tell it true. As we do, we must also remember that hard truth must be delivered truthfully—in a spirit of gentleness, respect, and love-saturated tears.

True compassion insists on it.


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[1] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), 87.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

[3] Larry Alex Taunton, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Atlantic, June 6, 2013 – http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/

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2 responses to “Sometimes Compassion Comes In Unexpected Packages”

  1. Gladys says:

    their is another option. It is called Restorative justice. What if the truth is that instead of eternal punishment. The justice that God employs is a restorative justice. Where the one deserving punishment is punished temporarily until he/she is restored, and their is ultimate reconciliation between all parties (victim, murderer, God).

    My hope is in ultimate reconciliation that on a most powereful God beyond our grasp can accomplish.

  2. GLADYS says:

    I do understand the desire for punishment of the most horrible and heinious crimes that have been committed. The violence and oppression that has occurred i agree needs to be dealt with. I do believe each of us has to answer to God for everything that we do (nobody is going to get a way with anything)

    I just believe (lets say hopefully believe) that the justice that we so want, will be administered by God, but probably not in the way we picture it or imagine it. I just believe in the possibility that God’s justice is not vengeful but restorative, and that it will not look like the way we would like it here on earth in our sinful human understanding.

    I’am reminded of Jesus own words “father forgive them for they know not what they do”. That says a lot to me about God’s mercy, grace and i believe restorative justice. I believe he will have the last word and make everything right.

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