Merciful Living

A speaker once asked his audience to raise their hands high above their heads. Everyone complied. Then he said, “Raise them higher.” Everyone extended his or her reach several inches.

Kindness is like that. Everybody can be kind and caring. But no matter how much you’re doing, it’s possible to do a little more.

Showing care and kindness to one another on the personal level is a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. It started many generations before Jesus in the life of God’s chosen people, Israel. Then Jesus taught it as a primary doctrine: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus modeled loving-kindness to the ultimate expression: dying on the cross for the human race. His most well-known apostle, Paul, carried this ethic forward, strongly calling the young Christian community to lives of compassion, mercy, and sympathy:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. . . . Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Col. 3:12).

Here was a fresh and revolutionary understanding of God. Here was God mandating love for one another in order to please the loving God. A dynamic new force was unleashed in the world—people caring for others in order to serve their God. Such behavior was unknown to the other religions of the day.

Killed with Kindness

Paganism’s main concern was finding ways to placate frightening and angry gods. Appeasing the gods, in ways directed by the temple priests, was the dominant flow of pagan religious life. That had been a prominent focus in the Jewish religion as well. Seeking atonement by means of sacrifices and rituals and rule keeping—all designed to keep the displeasure of God in check—defined their living more than anything else.

Not only was loving one another not taught in paganism, the influential philosophers of the day despised mercy and compassion. They regarded such emotions as weakness to be extinguished, not expressed. Such thinking guided people of means and education and trickled down into the community in general.

It’s safe to claim that Jesus changed the way people lived on a very practical level. Certainly this was true in the Roman empire of that day. Jesus reached out to everybody indiscriminately. He responded with compassion to the outcasts of society, the crippled, the prostitutes, the rejected—male and female. There were no evident limits in his heart about who deserved healing, acceptance, and encouragement.

The pagan world, which defined life in the Roman Empire, had a radically different set of values. For example, it was common practice to heartlessly allow babies with deformities or weaknesses to be set outside for the elements, or animals, to take. Baby girls were also considered of no value. Newborn females could be disposed of similarly with no condemnation. Love for each other, especially the weak and those of little conventional value, was not a feature of religious living or any part of normal daily existence.

Loving-kindness on the part of Christians and the lack of it on the part of pagans were powerful factors in Christianity’s eventual dominance. The reason specifically, according to the eminent sociologist and historian Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity, is the expression of Christian care and kindness when terrible epidemics swept through the land.

In contrast to the merciful lives of followers of Jesus, this is what happened among the pagans, according to Dionysius, a well-known bishop of the church:

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might they found it difficult to escape.

There was no teaching espoused by their gods and priests calling them to do anything but care for themselves.  

Then Dionysius describes the behavior of the Christians, many of whom were Jews of the diaspora, now followers of Jesus:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. . . . The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom (The Rise of Christianity, p. 82).

As a result of such loving-kindness, more Christians survived, since even a little tender-loving care can make a difference between life and death. Not only did a higher number of Christians survive the plagues, their care saved the lives of a significant number of pagans, who in turn were attracted to Christianity. (Add to that, as Stark notes, the shortage of women in the pagan community because of the practices mentioned above.)

The rampant care-lessness of the pagans contributed to the death of that religion while Christianity grew to spread a radical, life-affirming “love one another” value system in the world.

A New Script

Here’s what happened, and the Christian church needs to grasp this firmly and celebrate it more enthusiastically: Jesus’ death and resurrection put an end to the need for the obsessive concern with paying for one’s sins. Appeasing frightening gods is no longer necessary. Christ’s death and resurrection finished the task of atonement. Sacrifices, rituals, and compulsive rule-keeping to please God have been rendered obsolete. “Your sins are forgiven. I died for you,” says Jesus.

Jesus took the constant preoccupation with sin off the agenda and introduced a whole new life script, calling his followers to an entirely new way of thinking: “Thank God for forgiveness and turn your life toward good work, building a better world.”

In demonstrating God’s ultimate caring heart, Jesus modeled for us how to build God’s kingdom on earth: by committing specific, tangible, noticeable acts of loving-kindness every day toward everyone.

Caring and kindness are not limited to Christians, of course. Yet they are a powerful force in our world because of Jesus and the tradition of Christians practicing such loving behavior. Today, compassionate behavior is embedded in the conventional expectations of ordinary people, religious or not. Few realize that this behavior largely originated as a way of life with Jesus’ followers.

But even today we tend to hold back on expressions of appreciation, words of encouragement, compliments, and showing personal interest in others. And it is rare that we are called from the pulpit to live lives of faith that result in increased friendliness at the grocery store, greater measures of kindness to our colleagues, and smiles to strangers.

Certainly the church as an institution is brightening the world. But we forget that each of us, individually, has something to offer. Loving behavior, every day, everywhere we go, indiscriminately given, must be part of how we define Christians and the church.

Jesus said to us, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). Our faith must spill out all over the place on the people we meet every day of the week, going into hard places to encourage, support, and lend a helping hand. We need to realize that every one of us is a member of “the walking wounded,” and every one of us is eligible, needy, and hungry for loving-kindness.

My heart has been so hammered by this teaching that I now see that I have a job when I go to the bank, to the mall, to the parking garage. My job is to brighten a few lives and help wherever and however I can.

When Jesus prayed, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” he was declaring God’s agenda for him and for us. God’s agenda is that earth become a place of love and peace and well-being—as it is in heaven.

And this is what Christian living is all about, plain and simple. When we look at the cross, we see what love is. It is about dying for others. That’s the most powerful revelation in all of history.

FOR DISCUSSION:
  1. Talk about an experience you had of receiving care or a kindness from someone. How did it affect you?
  2. What inspires you to care about others?
  3. What keeps you from feeling that the exercise of care and kindness is a burden or a duty?
  4. Dale Cooper is convinced that he has a “job to brighten a few lives and help wherever and however [he] can.” Who, in your life, would benefit from such care?
  5. What difference does it make in your spiritual life to practice care and kindness?

About the Author

Jim Kok is director of care ministry at the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, Calif. He is also a clinical pastoral education supervisor and author of several books, including 90% of Helping Is Just Showing Up.

X