Everyone has a story. Hearing peoples stories can move our hearts, it gives us the opportunity to hear the why behind who they are. During a recent service trip in Africa, with an organization called HOPE World Wide, I was able to hear the stories of both the men and women I served with as well as those we served.
Sometimes people’s stories can be hard to hear. They can brush up against the raw (still healing) pieces of our hearts like an alcohol soaked cloth against an open wound. Other stories can be so beyond our experience or comprehension they stifle us. In these moments to choose compassion can be hard.
In Mark 1:40-42 Jesus healed a man from leprosy. Leprosy isolates and disfigures. This man was socially, physically and emotionally isolated. No one was willing to help him. Yet Jesus was not only willing but filled with compassion.
For many years I numbed my pain and refused to enter it. This often prevented me from feeling compassion and empathy. I had trouble showing compassion when I focused more on myself over the other person, when someone’s behavior wasn’t changing, when I felt helpless to fix it or rescue the person, when it hurt or I was afraid and when I jumped to judgment. In some way judgment was the most dangerous because it gave me the right not to care. Yet, a lot of my healing has come through compassion for others. Feeling and understanding pain enables us to feel compassion. If we stifle our pain we numb our compassion also.
A lot of the experiences on this trip involved being willing to enter others pain and sharing my own. God transformed these times to great joy and hope only He can give.
1Peter1: 3-“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,”
Grief without hope can be unbearable. But hope, God’s hope, produces courage and compassion. Watching the courage of others can give us courage and build our compassion. And so I watched as the privileged American men and women around me served a population of people I worked with for years who’s circumstances I had become accustomed to, and emotionally disconnected from. . I watched and listened to what moved these men and women’s hearts. It gave me courage to access my own emotions and grieve with them. I accepted that I could not fix it but I could listen and rely on God instead of myself.
Grief, pain and disappointment can make us weaker or far wiser and tender, depending on what we put our hope in. I entered the slums of a small province in South Africa watching barefoot children run past me through the garbage on the dirt road, ducking between the small tin shacks. I listened to a woman living there tell her story. She was taking care of 9 children, only 3 of which were her own. When an older woman she was close died she took her children in to take care of them also. Having myself grown up abandoned this struck a deep cord. Here was this woman, with no job, not from the place she was currently living, living in a small tin shack amongst garbage. She had nothing yet she made no excuses. She didn’t say, “They are not my children or responsibility.” She didn’t say, “I don’t have the means to support them.” She simply saw no other option but to take care of these children.
Poverty scares me. It makes me uncomfortable and triggers deep-seated childhood fears of my own poverty, and living in scarcity. Her scarcity put mine in a very different perspective yet we shared one thing, the feeling of hopelessness and fear it can bring. As an adult, my childhood experience produced in me selfishness, self-centeredness and self-protection. What poverty produced in this woman was compassion.
I felt my stomach and throat tighten as I thought about times I have chosen self-protection over mercy, when my circumstance and stakes were so much lower. The woman spoke of how hopeless she used to feel but now this program gave her hope, courage, and a voice. It helped her to see she was heard and seen. I felt ashamed and humbled. For years God had given me hope but I hesitated to claim it. I didn’t trust God’s mercy for me and in turn had trouble extending it to others.
In the day-to-day world it is so easy for us to be disconnected and disengage emotionally. This year has been a year of daily choosing to connect and to feel. This trip challenged this choice to new heights – to be present in each moment and feel everything. Compassion can be uncomfortable, but when I trust God I surrender my will into His care and engage. I engage in others’ stories and see beyond their faults because Jesus sees beyond mine.
We are here not just to weep with people, but to put hope and Love into them.
In Matt. 14:12 Jesus’ disciples grieved. It’s about laying mine and another’s pain at the feet of Jesus that makes us able to bear under it and can give others hope. When I dull my pain, I dull my joy and compassion. When I numb my lows, I numb my highs. Jesus has a different perspective on grief. He cried with those who mourned even when he knew he was about to turn the mourning to joy.
Depending on God for my ultimate well-being has allowed me to face my own pain and enter into others with them. Trusting Him is the doorway to intimacy, freedom to love, to hurt, laugh, make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, feel my feelings and start each day new.
Zeph 3:17 “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Ps100:5 “The Lord is good and his love endures forever”
One of the most profound effects of being deeply connected to God is a renewed sense of your own preciousness. When I know and believe God cherishes me as a beloved child, I know and believe in my worth as a person. As His child, I learn to place worth on what he values: me and others.
I see how we become more like Jesus when we don’t avoid grief, and also let ourselves get pulled in by the grief of others. There is nothing wrong with allowing myself to feel it. Jesus mourned and cried even when he knew what I don’t, the ultimate outcome.
I don’t need to try to fix it. Jesus turns death into resurrection. Out of weakness came real strength. Out of repentance comes real power. Out of giving away and serving others comes real strength, joy and comfort as I comfort others. Out of generosity comes real wealth. Serving, showing compassion and entering our own and others pain brings something even greater than what was there before. We can bring something better out of the bleak we enter. We can give hope by offering our most genuine selves.