Sometimes we wonder why there has to be pain. What is the point of discomfort or outright agony? Yet pain performs a function that is critical to life. It is a signal, telling us that something is wrong.
Pain is like a gauge that warns us, tells us to take care of ourselves. Either you are not functioning properly, or there is a threat from the outside. Your shoe is rubbing against your foot because you have a bunion. That is a problem of dysfunction. Your hand is on a hot burner—get it off! That is an external threat.
Pain tells us about our relationships too, both internal and external problems. One of you is being dishonest, so communication breaks down and trust is shattered. It is painful. You need to address the internal dysfunction in that relationship. But if someone else is trying to come between the two of you, that is an external threat that has to be faced.
It happens in larger systems too, like a business. Marketing isn’t getting the word out, so orders aren’t coming in. This is internal dysfunction that leads to pain: people have to be laid off. Competition from another manufacturer would be an external threat that has to be addressed by the marketing department.
Pain tells us something about our society. We are feeling a lot of pain in the United States right now because racism, opposing ideologies, and distrust have led to violence. Whether we are talking about the use of lethal force in policing our communities, the issues of immigration, or even differing opinions about political candidates, the stress level is high.
What is the pain of enmity and violence telling us about ourselves? Is something not functioning properly, or is there an external threat? Some voices are telling us that we have an external threat we have to protect ourselves against. They tell us we have to build a wall, or refuse to let certain types of people into our country.
My own view is that our pain is revealing some internal dysfunction. We have become fearful of engaging with people who are different than we are. Some of this is rooted in longstanding prejudice. Too many children are still raised in homes where the stranger is feared and thus demonized. “Those people aren’t like us” somehow equates with “those people” being a threat.
It could also be a symptom of overstimulation and the rapid pace of change that challenges us all to cope. There are so many kinds of people, so many ideas, so much information and bad news that keeps flooding into our consciousness daily. It is comforting to become insular and defensive, focusing only on people and opinions who are like us. But that can lead to suspicion and distrust, even violence.
The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t support this kind of thinking. Jesus went out of his way to engage the “other” in many situations. He touched those considered unclean, chatted about theology with a Gentile woman (taboo for a Jewish man), and hung around with moral outcasts like dishonest tax men and prostitutes. He commended people for faith who had no connection with the Temple. He listened to people and cared about them.
Instead of fearing the sin and impurity of people he met, he was curious about them. Jesus asked people what they wanted of him. He encouraged them to describe what was broken. He asked his disciples what people thought of him. He asked permission to heal. Sometimes he healed the soul–extending forgiveness–when physical healing was all that was requested, because he had taken the time to look deeper into a person’s dis-ease.
What would happen if we related to people who are different than we are in the same way that Jesus did? When someone disagrees with you on a matter of religion, ask them how they came to see it that way instead of throwing up a wall between you and them, or condemning them. If somebody supports a candidate you despise, be curious about it instead of ridiculing them. When you see the reports about protests, ask questions instead of making assumptions about the protesters.
Curiosity and compassion seem to me to be the hallmarks of Jesus’ life. He didn’t spend his time railing against sinners and campaigning against Gentiles. He invited dialogue and sought the good of each person he met. The only ones he criticized were the religious leaders who made it their business to judge and exclude, who exploited the system to maintain their power. He tried to engage them in dialogue as well, but most of his detractors only saw him as a threat.
If instead we are curious about what God is doing in the lives of other people and in the world around us, we have the capacity for compassion. We can wonder about God’s intentions for the world. We can appreciate diversity instead of fearing it. We can see the suffering and enter it with others, offering ourselves as fellow seekers of healing and hope.
It would be easy to throw up our hands in despair about trends we see happening in our country. But that is not the behavior of hopeful believers. We are a people who get involved, who care, who do what it takes to provide people with the freedom and well-being they need, as much as it is in our power. And healing these wounds is within our power, thanks to the Holy Spirit who lives in us. It starts on the scale of person-to-person contact every day. It starts with the way you teach your children to treat other people. It happens in the next conversation with a friend or spouse. What would happen if, instead of continuing a longstanding disagreement or grudge with someone, you would change your stance and be curious about their story, their thinking?
So, two quotes in closing. One from author Elizabeth Gilbert, who speaks eloquently these days about the power of curiosity: “I want to live in a society filled with people who are curious and concerned about each other, rather than afraid of each other.”
The other is from Jesus, in the interpretation by Eugene Peterson (The Message): “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves…In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:44-45, 48)