The Circle of Compassion

2 09 2017

circle of hearts“Johnny’s” obvious skin disease meant the other kids usually kept their distance. The fact that he was mentally a bit slow, and had dropped out of school to scavenge trash he could resell to support his family, didn’t help him in making friends either. But neither of these disadvantages could keep this teenager from falling in love.

Our house was Johnny’s safe place, where everyone was included in the circle of love. He dropped by, knowing he’d get a hug from my wife—probably the only one he knew who would touch him with affection—for some dating advice.

“I really like her, but she won’t even talk to me,” Johnny shared. “How do I make her like me?”

My wife responded, “You can’t make someone do what they don’t want to do.”

“Oh, is that sin?” Johnny heard a lot of sermons in his Muslim community about sin, but never seemed to have a clear understanding of what sin was.

“Not because it’s sin, but because you care about her,” my wife explained. “What if I asked you to steal something for me, would you do it?”

“Stealing is sin,” Johnny shook his head.

“I mean, think about how you’d feel if I asked you to steal…”

“I wouldn’t feel good in my heart,” the boy replied.

“Right. Because I care about you, I don’t want to ask you to do something that makes you feel bad in your heart. I only want to ask you do things you feel good about. Make sense?”

Johnny nodded. But it was still a leap to get back to the girlfriend issue.

“So you care about this girl, right? If you ask her to like you, and she doesn’t feel good about that, you shouldn’t force her to like you. Only ask her to do things she feels good about.”

Johnny picked at his peeling skin. The defeat in his eyes indicated he understood. My wife offered to pray with him.

Later when she told me the story, I was struck by how winning someone’s romantic affections often fails when we start with what we want, but will occasionally succeed when we step into that person’s life to find out what they want.

I also saw a parallel picture of how we Christians, even motivated by “love,” often make the wrong choice in how we share the Good News of Christ. We want our friends to know Jesus so badly, we’ll encourage them to make a decision to follow Christ before they’re ready, or to go against their family, even to sneak around behind their family’s back to read the Bible or attend a Bible study. Inside, they may not “feel good” about this, but will do it to please us because we “pressure” them into it, even using Bible verses to back us up. Surely there is a more loving way.

Gregory Boyle, in his amazing book, Tattoos on the Heart, calls us to this deeper and wider type of love:

Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away….Kinship is what God presses us on to, always hopeful that its time has come.

One reason that Johnny and hundreds of other Muslims visit our home is that we’ve cultivated a habit of caring about what they care about. They share their dreams of getting married, going to college, seeing their parent get off drugs, the end of abuse in their home, or just knowing that tomorrow they’ll wake up with food in the house. “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that,” we say. And we pray together.

One day a new Muslim guy joined our weekly interfaith men’s prayer meeting. As we all shared our prayer requests, he confessed that he’d beaten his wife last night. “Of course, I was drunk…and she deserved it,” he explained. “But I guess I shouldn’t do that. You can pray for me.”

“All of us married men here know how hard it is to love our wives,” I sympathized. “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that.” He didn’t need a rebuke or a sermon. He already wanted to change! For several weeks we prayed with this brother for breakthroughs in his marriage (while my wife checked on his wife). And God answered him. He stopped beating his wife. And she was absolutely thrilled that he was attending our prayer meeting!

The day came when we shared our prayer requests and he had a completely new one—“I don’t feel God close to me, and that’s what I want more than anything.” You know our response: “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that.” Ah, the loving, wooing call of God was getting through, and this man was now ready to respond.

If we’d kept this drunken wife-beater out of our circle, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of witnessing this holy moment. But in the “circle of compassion” we found a kinship. We stood together with him in the mess. And we were still standing together when God’s love broke through.

Is there anyone you’ve been keeping outside your circle of compassion? Would it “feel good to your heart” to widen that circle just a little more?

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