Teckla and I often see hitchhikers at the edge of Coos Bay as we head for home after work. Highway 101 runs through Coos Bay and is the best north/south route for hitchhikers on the west coast. Today at the edge of the road stood a young couple kissing, each with their thumbs out for a ride. A couple hundred yards later on the other side of the road was a one-legged man on crutches making his way into town.
I was struck by two things: how interesting, almost lyrical, the roadside attractions were today and how detached I felt toward these interesting people. Brandon Heath has a great song about his lack of compassion for the people he sees at the airport and on the street. In the song “Give Me Eyes to See” he asks for God to help him see people with His compassion. It is a great song and expresses a prayer I have prayed. I too want to see people with God’s eyes of love.
Or maybe not. Like many, I suspect, I dislike people in the abstract or aggregate. Crowds do not elicit compassion, but rather a desire to flee. Pan-handlers in front of Wal-Mart touch neither my heart nor my pocket-book. But if you put me face to face with the most disgusting homeless person, drenched in their own urine, anointed with their vomit, even rude and threatening, and then tell me his name—my heart will break and my pockets will empty. And I know lots of folks like this. In the abstract they will rail against people who are always “gaming the system” and getting financial help from every charity in town—then spending the money on drugs or alcohol. But when (let’s call him John) John shows up asking for help, they shake his hand and write out a check.
On the other hand, I know folks who love mankind in the abstract and can wax eloquent about the virtues of the poor and homeless, and yet treat individuals with contempt and spite. I suppose it would be nice to feel compassion for the masses and for John. But if I have to choose between the two approaches, I prefer those who show compassion to individuals when real help is needed.
But I have another concern, one that Brandon Heath addresses in his song. When he asks God to give him eyes to see people as he sees them, Brandon qualifies it by saying, “For just one second . . .” I think this is wise because to actually see the wounds, the sin, the oppression that God sees in each person for more than a few seconds would probably crush us. It would be unbearable. Even to be constantly mindful of the lostness of those we see around us would reduce us to blubbering, broken, pathetic puddles of grief.
So I am not sure God means our walking around state to be one of constant and complete compassion for everyone around us. The gospels tell us that at times Jesus was moved with compassion, sometimes for individuals and sometimes for the masses who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd”. That there was “movement” in Christ’s compassion suggests that the ebb and flow of compassion is simply human. It may be okay to get out of a busy airport without being crushed by the desperate need for God in people’s faces. However, we must always let the Holy Spirit, not our moods or flesh, control the tides of our compassion.