Why We Shouldn’t Look Away – Unflinching in the Face of Suffering

homeless-845709_640I drive a lot for work, so I listen to talk radio. For the past two days, the hot topic in Rhode Island has been panhandlers. One lawmaker introduced legislation making it illegal for motorists to hand anything to panhandlers at intersections (essentially fining generosity for the sake of safety and traffic flow – debate among yourselves.) It wasn’t the legislation that concerned me, instead, it was an offshoot conversation that emerged I found distressful.

Several callers reported running red lights at intersections to avoid having to sit at the stop and look at a panhandler. They didn’t report being afraid. Instead, they said things like “I just can’t stare at a poor person for three minutes without it ruining my day.” “I can’t take that, man, staring at someone like that. I’d feel too guilty.” “I don’t need a guilt trip at a traffic light. There are some things I just don’t want to see.” One caller even described a Rhode Island judge who will forgive tickets for peopletraffic-690030_640 who sped through an intersection to avoid sitting there looking at a panhandler. He jokes about it in his courtroom (no names were given.)

To me, THIS is the conversation. Safety at intersections is important and there are risks to motorists and to panhandlers if they engage in transactions in traffic no matter how worthy but can we talk about how we’ve become a society that will risk a car accident and a traffic fine just to avoid seeing someone in need asking for help?

All the time I was listening to the callers, Isaiah 53:3 went through my mind: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces italy-1454688_640he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (ESV) Is there any way to be more like Jesus in His suffering than to be a person from whom others turn away, someone others run to avoid seeing, someone that others must make somehow less than human to keep their own worlds in order? And I, if I am a fisher of men, how would I justify trying not to see those I am sent to seek, simply for my own emotional comfort?

Too many of us try to devise our own armor for surviving life in a fallen world. We believe that when God warns us in Proverbs to “Guard our hearts,” it means that we should fashion a shield around them or harden them against the hardships of this world. As someone who sits every day at kitchen tables or in barren homeless shelter rooms with people wheart-1347549_640ho suffer, I can tell you I understand that temptation. I’ve met people in my line of work who have succeeded in hardening their hearts and it’s sad. You see, there’s no way to isolate that hardness. Eventually, it creeps into all areas of one’s life until a person’s pulled off a “reverse Pinocchio” and walks around like animated petrified wood.

I’m not suggesting the answer is to spend our days weeping or to impoverish ourselves giving to everyone with an outstretched hand. I would be paralyzed with emotional pain if I didn’t find a way to function without taking every hurt on as my own. Thankfully, we know Jesus, and He promises to walk with us into each situation. He provides an armor that guards our hearts without us needing to make them hard.  Yes, sometimes they bleed but He is the ultimate healer.

Jesus (through the Bible and the Holy Spirit) offers wisdom about when to give and when to hold back, when to weep and when to exhort, when to comfort and when to correct. He tells us He chose the place and circumstances of our birth so we don’t bear guilt for where we started, the color of our skin, or the help we had along the way but if we are blessed with fortunate circumstances, we believe God does expect us to use that fortunate position to serve others.

You see, Satan offers a false guilt that is so heavy and inescapable we would rather blind ourselves to the suffering of others than to bear it. That’s what was at play (along with the nature of humans to avoid discomfort) during yesterday’s phone calls. Jesus homeless-845711_640can free us from that snare. He deals in guilt but only actual guilt and He even provided the answer to that with His own blood. When we help others, it can be from a place of freedom, as ambassadors of Christ, as agents of love in the world. He frees us to see human suffering and not turn away.

It’s never comfortable to encounter our own limitations. If I wasn’t a Christian, I would have to shut down to suffering, too. The thing is, that shutting down, that turning away, it’s not just a form of avoidance but it’s the practice of dehumanizing another person. It’s a way of saying “To me, you don’t exist, you’re not there, I wish you would go away.” If we make a habit of this, it becomes a lifestyle, one that makes it easy to talk about “those people” or “the poor” or “the needy” as if they are some type of human being different from us.

Jesus experienced this turning away. He was born to a poor couple. I imagine many averted their eyes from Joseph and Mary as they sought shelter in Bethlehem. And Jesus was a persoson-of-god-69994_640n to many when He entered Jerusalem in triumph but once the religious leaders stirred the crowds against Him, He was a nuisance, a criminal, something people wanted to go away. They turned their eyes from this man who was scourged, mocked, and crowned with thorns. They dehumanized our God who inhabited our humanity to save us. Now, Jesus calls us to be like Him, not like the crowd who turned away.

india-1321614_640Because Christ lives within us, We are free to look at a suffering person and not harden our hearts. It hurts. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes we can help; often we can’t but we can refuse to turn away. We can be a witness. We can acknowledge them as human. We can say with our eyes, “I could be where you are and I care.” And we can ask Jesus to lead us in that moment. Speak to us. Direct our intercession and our actions. Teach us to remain open-hearted in a world of suffering as a testimony to the strength and power of Jesus Christ.

When we sing “Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,” let it remind us to keep them open once we leave the sanctuary so we can see Jesus even if He’s suffering on a street corner at the next red light.

In the spirit of the season, my Jesus-loving publisher is releasing Running from a Crazy Man (and other adventures traveling with Jesus) on Kindle FOR FREE Thursday 12/8 through Saturday 12/10! I LOVE THIS! Download it for yourself, email a copy to a friend, and spread the word. I care more that people have access to the message of endurance in this book than I do about making any money from it so please, spread the joy!

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