After hearing a sermon on Jesus’ call to visit those imprisoned, Jasmine signed up as a volunteer for her church’s prison ministry. She was inspired by the vision that God’s compassion extends to the outcast and incarcerated, and she saw an opportunity to embody it through assisting at a weekly communion service at the county jail. When she walked into the common room on her first Sunday, the prisoners were already seated and waiting. Most of them were grateful and attentive but a few looked distracted, bored, even defiant in taking advantage of any reason to escape their cell for an hour. One of them made Jasmine flash on the step-father that beat both her and her mom—a man never held accountable; and certainly never repentant. Jasmine did not feel compassion. She was repulsed. Secretly, she felt these men were getting what they deserved and she hoped they would never get out.
Her feelings shamed her. She knew, as a Christian, she was supposed to love these men. So she shook her revulsions away, and served the men communion. Her feelings, however, persisted. No matter how hard she prayed for God to fill her heart with compassion, Sunday after Sunday, the sight of those men scared and repulsed her. She began to dread the Sunday visits, each one a painful remainder of how poorly she loved like Jesus did. Her determination to embody compassion turned into depression. Until the depression won. With shameful resignation, she made excuses and withdrew from the ministry. In her heart, however, she knew—she was a poor excuse of a Christian.
David is a member of a Christian community committed to serving the poor in inner-city Detroit. If such communities gave out awards, he would clearly win Most Valuable Christian. He serves tirelessly in his efforts to care for the city’s homeless—devoting hours each day in the kitchen preparing the pots of soup he hauls through the parks, biking far and wide to lobby supermarkets for contributions, hounding city hall for more hospitable zoning regulations, and wiling away the midnight hours dumpster-diving for the food that will become the next day’s meals. David’s torment is an internal voice so viciously self-critical it disturbs his sleep. The son of an alcoholic father, David tosses and turns through the night taunted by an inner voice of self-judgment: “You love the attention you get as a ‘suffering servant.’ You love to be seen helping the poor. You love to walk through town in your second hand clothes and worn out shoes. You are so full of pride. You hypocrite. You judge everyone you see. Judge them for not living as you do—and yet all the while you seethe with jealousy, wishing you could live as your brother does, eating in nice restaurants, vacationing in Europe, living in a nice home. David lives with a constant fear that eventually his community members will see him for the fraud he knows himself to be. David uses this fear to drive himself to work even harder, never imagining that he could receive the love he gives so feverishly to others.
Melissa is a single mom with two junior-high daughters and a toddler boy. She knows she is supposed to be a loving parent. She knows that Jesus’ mandate to love one another extends to one’s own offspring. But truth be told, sometimes it is all she can do to keep from strangling one of them. Between holding down a job as a teller, carting the kids around, and doing the domestic chores of laundry, cooking, and cleaning, her patience is strained to the breaking point. Of course she cares for her kids, and she hates herself for feeling so resentful and angry at her children. Going to church can be a mild refuge, until the pastor’s admonition that we love like Jesus singes her guilt. Determined to be a more faithful Christian, or at least a better parent, Melissa resolves to embody the love she really does feel for her kids, a resolve that usually lasts about as long as the car ride home.
Compassion, as is widely known, is at the core of Christianity. Jesus summed up all of his teachings with the commandment to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, his call is more radical than that. Loving our neighbor involves extending compassion not only to the wounded and needy, the demonized and despised, but also to people who revile, violate, and persecute us. ‘Love your enemies, ’ Jesus invites, ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, and show compassion to those who hate and do evil.’
This radical ethic of compassion seems extraordinary to the point of being unattainable—or attainable only to the gifted few. When the Amish find the capacity to forgive a man who has killed their schoolchildren, when Nelson Mandela finds it in his heart to invite his jailor of twenty-seven years to stand at his side during his inauguration, when a Palestinian woman who has lost her son in a terrorist bombing raises an Israeli boy, and raises him as a Jew, it shimmers with the miraculous. Ordinary folk like us stand in awe, amazed and inspired. We also can feel indicted and shamed. For the truth is, loving our enemies is excruciatingly difficult. How do we love our ‘enemy, ’ an incarcerated spouse batterer, for example, when they terrify and repulse us? How do we love our enemy when, mired in shame and our own castigation, our enemy is our self? How do we love our ‘enemy’ when our enemy, the person who most repels and infuriates me, is my very own child, or partner, or parent?
While the commandment to love is often proclaimed from Christian pulpits, seldom is it explained how we might cultivate such genuine compassion. With the absence of practical guidance we hear this commandment as a near impossible ideal and become burdened with shame and guilt at our inevitable failures. Our angers and fears, drives and repulsions erupt with primal power; we feel grossly unchristian for having these feelings in the first place, yet inadequate in our incapacity to free ourselves from their grip.
Fortunately, Jesus offers a healing path. For him, loving our enemies is not a commandment demanding contrived civility toward those we secretly despise. Rather, it is an invitation into a process of personal and relational restoration. It is not an obligation to burden us with shame; it is a spiritual path that opens the way to transformation and life. His spiritual path of radical compassion entails the following:
First, Jesus invites us to recognize that we are naturally compassionate. We are created in the image of God, a God whose very essence is a compassion that extends to all like the sun that shines on the good and the evil alike. We are born to love; and we are most fully human, most fully ourselves, when we experience and embody compassion in the world. This is true to our experience. Everyone has moments when we see someone, perhaps a loved one or a child, suffering or in need, and our heart spontaneously goes out to them. We are moved by their pain and we yearn to ease their suffering. In such moments, something feels right inside of us; we feel in harmony with the divine pulse of compassion; we might even say to ourselves, ‘yes, this is me when I am most being true to who I really am.’ Consequently, cultivating compassion is less a matter of contorting ourselves into something we are not, and more a matter of removing the obstacles that prevent us from being our true selves. As the Taoist says: ‘when the obstacle is removed from the eye, the eye sees; when the obstacle is removed from the ear, the ear hears; when the obstacle is removed from the heart, the heart loves.’
That being said, we often are disconnected from our true compassionate core. Reactive emotions consume us—anger, fear, despair, and disgust; internal voices harass us—of self-loathing, perfectionism, blame, or judgment; and behavioral impulses drive us unawares—to work, play, stay busy, or simply numb ourselves out. If a true self lies deep within us as an enduring capacity for a grounded compassion, a self that rings false and disharmonious feels fully in charge throughout many of our everyday encounters.
This is true of us all. Throughout our day, reactive emotions flare within us; internal voices of self-reproach taunt us; impulses or drives to engage in some behavior surge within us. When that happens, we usually do one of two things—we either act out, or we suppress. Acting out entails giving in to the possessive power of our reactivity—we might lash out and say something mean to our child; give into our fear and withdraw from a prison ministry; or throw ourselves more fully into the drivenness of work or the balm of self-medication. Suppression entails denying our reactivity or repelling it by sheer force of will—we might insist to ourselves that we really not feeling that way at all, or berate ourselves that we wouldn’t be if we were more spiritually evolved (“You are supposed to be Christian after all!”), or perhaps simply minimize our feelings (“You really shouldn’t be so fearful or impatient”) and shrug them off so as not to unsettle the day.
Both strategies are unsatisfying and counter-productive. Acting out, far from resolving the situation that triggers us, only escalates the disconnection while poisoning our soul in the process; and suppression is like submerging a buoy underwater—the triggered emotion remains fully charged and keeps popping to the surface with dogged persistence at future opportunities that always seem to present themselves. Both are forms of internal slavery—either to the reactive emotion itself, or to the repelling force within us determined to manhandle the emotion away. Neither brings healing. Neither resolves the issue. And neither restores us to our compassionate essence.
The way of compassion suggests a radical and counter-intuitive alternative. Instead of focusing our attention on the person apparently causing our distress, compassion invites us to turn inward, to take a ‘U’ turn if you will, and attend to the reactivity within ourselves. Jesus signified this as tending to the log in our own eye when we see a splinter in the eye of another (Mt. 7:3-5; Lk. 6:41-42). This was not a moral imperative meant to mire us in guilt and self-accusation; rather it is an acute psychological observation that comes with a healing invitation. Jesus recognized that our judgments, repulsions, and reactivities are more symptoms of sensitivities within ourselves than offenses in others so inherently egregious they defy the reach of even a saint’s compassion. One clue that the sensitivity is internal to me is that countless others respond to situations differently than we do—people who infuriate us are easily understood by others. Further, the severity of our reactions is telling—a ‘splinter’ of aggravation so to speak, causes a ‘log’s’ worth of reactivity within me. Clearly something is askew inside. And the spiritual invitation is, first, to calm and recalibrate the reactivity within us, then tend to the situation at hand from a more grounded and centered posture.
This invitation to take the ‘U’ turn, and first tend the internal stirrings within us, is textured by another radical realization, one with life-transforming potential. Every interior movement we experience—every emotional fluttering, mental monologue, imaginative fantasy, or behavioral impulse—is rooted in some internal need that is being denied and is straining to be heard. Suffering is behind the grip of the internal reactivities that possess us. In the words of Marshall Rosenberg, every extreme reactivity is but the “tragic cry of an unmet need.” Pangs of jealousy at a colleague’s new book may be the frustrated groans of the book within me aching to be birthed; an impulse to surf the internet for hours may be the plea for some centered downtime from work; rage at an abuser’s escape from prosecution may be the shriek of a vulnerability demanding a space that feels safe and fully protected. Each one of these reactivities, whose clamor so wreak havoc within our inner world, is but the wail of an unsoothed fear, an unsatisfied longing, an unhealed wound, or an undeveloped potential crying out to be tended and restored. Our interior movements are not our enemies; they are battered guides pointing the way to life.
This is revolutionary. Normally we are at war with our inner movements. When not carried away by their power, we judge them as bad or destructive and manage them through power of will or distraction. I feel shame for my anger at my child and siphon it off by running a few miles or binging on Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Of course, this only intensifies the internal conflict. Emotions and drives elude, in the long run, any attempt to be handled. Like a child that screams only louder when ignored, these possessive energies only become more severe when their cry is unheard and the suffering hidden within remains unseen and untended. The way of Jesus invites us to listen with care to the cry within each interior reactivity. Surprisingly, when listened to deeply, our interior stirrings relax, and their underlying suffering—their fear, longing, wound, or frustration—is able to come to the surface. When we understand this suffering, we are moved, compassion emerges within us, and our needs and wounds are tended and soothed. In so doing, we are restored to our compassionate essence.
Once grounded and restored to our compassionate, we now turn our gaze back to the persons triggering our reactivities. And we discover that something beautiful happens when we compassionately remove the reactive and wounded logs from our eyes. We are able to see clearly again. Taking the ‘U’ turn restores us into the grounded, empowered, and open presence that constitutes our truest self.
This is the posture from which we are most readily able to cultivate a compassion that extends outward toward others. When not in this grounded posture, we are enmeshed in some interior movement—whether reactivity or a drive to distraction—that has refused to release its grasp upon us. Forcing a feeling of compassion at this point, not only rings false as genuine compassion, it dismisses the cry of the interior movement and ignores the suffering hidden within it. Coercing an open heart for another while closing one’s heart off to oneself is as internally contradictory as trying to scream one’s way into silence, strain one’s way into relaxation, or battle one’s way into inner peace. The suffering within us will only intensify, and scream for attention in other ways—as compassion fatigue, a seething resentment, or a knot in the neck that refuses to soften.
This may be the most distinctive feature in this Christian approach to cultivating compassion. When encountering another, if we do not feel grounded and open, the invitation is to turn inward; to tend the wailing reactivity within; or as Jesus would say, to take care of the log in our own eye first. In so doing, we soothe the suffering within us and become restored to our compassionate essence; and then, we have the capacity to truly love our neighbor, with the very same love with which we love our self.
That being said, from a posture of restored, grounded openness, it is possible to cultivate a genuine compassion for others. For Christians, cultivation of such compassion is informed by three core insights. First, God’s compassionate reach extends to every creature we encounter. Jesus certainly embodied a compassion that extended to sinners, centurions, the suffering, the self-righteous, and even towards those that conspired to crucify him. And he taught that God’s compassion resembles the herder of a hundred head, who would leave ninety-nine sheep safe in their fold to scour the wilderness for the single stray lost and alone in the night. (Mt. 18:12-14. Lk. 15:14) No one is so tortured and twisted that God’s compassion refuses to extend into any swamplands in which they might be ensnared.
Second, to the extent that each person is created in the image of God, a seed of a person’s truest self dwells within all we meet. However dimly, the pulse of humanity beats within every heart, and with it an abiding capacity for care and connection. The people we engage through our days, like ourselves, may be but momentarily mired in the drives and compulsions, the sensitivities and reactivities that constitute the journey of surviving. Though often we may forget, or at times be inclined to disbelieve, these persons have an essential core of compassion embedded within them. And this core has its source in God. As long as a person’s heart is beating, a sacred pulse is present within them as well—sustaining life and inviting restoration into the compassionate humanity we were all created to be. In short, as George Fox once affirmed, there is that of God in everyone.
Third, in precisely the same way as with ourselves, every interior movement we encounter in another—their emotional reactivities, their verbal discourse both internal and expressed, and their behaviors whether impulsive or deliberate—are rooted in some form of suffering within them aching to be assuaged. To paraphrase Marshall Rosenberg once more, any extreme emotion we see, even acts of violence a person may commit, are but the tragically veiled screams of one in pain and aching to be seen. It often comes out terribly distorted like, “How many times have I told you that I need you to pick me up at 6:00?” Underneath the assault, however, their soul is pleading for life, “Please, mom, do not forget me. I feel so alone in the world.”
To be sure, sometimes our words and actions can be terribly destructive. Assailing our children with our rage would be abusive; the cry of some in prison, for example, has taken the form of actually taking another’s life. The path of compassion in no way condones violation, or minimizes the suffering violation can cause. It does, however, offer a basis for understanding that tempers the impulse to demonize and ostracize an offender. No one is born a perpetrator. Every act of violation is born from suffering; and is a plea, sometimes grotesquely disguised, for healing and restoration. This insight opens a door to compassion. And it is compassion that has the potential for disarming an offender and melting them into the remorse and awareness through which restorative reconnection can occur.
Jesus came with a life-transforming spiritual path, a path that restores us to our compassionate essence and deepens our capacities to extend compassion even in the most difficult of circumstances. The admonition to love our enemies is not a mandate for Christian perfectionism, an impossible law to intensify our already burdened sense of shame. The Christian gospel is an antidote to shame not a millstone to increase it. Our God-given nature is compassion. And when we are overwhelmed by emotions and impulses that obscure our loving essence, it is not because we are fundamentally flawed as human beings. On the contrary, these difficult emotions we experience are the cries of what is profoundly right within us. In tending to these cries within our souls and removing the logs in our eyes, we are able to see clearly once more, even into the crying hearts of those who previously have triggered us. We are restored to ourselves. We are restored to the image of God within us. We are restored to the grace that holds with compassion ourselves, our loved ones, and even our enemies.
Frank Rogers and Mark Yaconelli are co-directors of the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont Lincoln University, and the two lead teachers at the Triptykos School of Compassion. They are co-authoring the upcoming book, ‘The Compassion Practice.’
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