A friend of mine is going through a hard time. Suffice to say, without getting into the details, she’s hit rock-bottom, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And I have let her down. I haven’t been the kind of friend she has so desperately needed.
I can list a whole bunch of excuses to explain my lack of presence; reasons that make sense and are, in many ways, the truth: I’m busy; my kids have me running in circles; I have deadlines to meet; we’ve been traveling; I meant to call her.
But the truth is uglier than that. The truth is, a big part of me wanted to avoid my friend because her situation is messy. I wanted to protect myself from the pain I knew would go hand-in-hand with compassion.
“Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters,” writes Paul to the Hebrews. “…Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.” (Hebrews 13:1, 3)
You might breeze over them, but these two simple words are the key to these verses. These two words force us to bridge the gap, that comfortable space, between ourselves and those who are suffering.
Paul doesn’t intend for us to “love” and “remember” at arm’s length, at a distance. Instead, he expects us to love and remember as if those suffering are our own brothers and sisters, our own flesh and blood; as if, in fact, this suffering is our very own pain.
Honestly, there’s only one way to remember and love as if, and it’s not easy or comfortable:
As if requires that we get close to the ugly, the uncomfortable, the messy, the awkward, the unfixable.
As if requires that we move toward someone else’s pain, and even to carry some of that pain ourselves.
As human beings, our instincts compel us toward self-preservation. We are naturally inclined to distance ourselves from anything that might be physically or even psychologically harmful. We are conditioned, both by society and by our own genetic make-up, to protect ourselves.
But Jesus calls us to do the opposite. He calls us to move toward pain and discomfort, to immerse ourselves in it for the good of others. Some people, the rare few, do this naturally. They are the ones with the God-given gift of empathy. But as Paul implies in these verses, just because we don’t naturally have the gift of empathy doesn’t mean we are off the hook.
Recently my friend and I talked for a long time on the phone. She cried — a lot – and told me some things that were difficult to hear, things I couldn’t solve, problems for which I had no answers, no ready-made solutions.
It was uncomfortable. I fought the urge to come up with an excuse to end the conversation the whole time we were on the phone, not because I don’t care about my friend, but because I was in way over my head and way out of my comfort zone. I felt overwhelmed by my obvious inadequacies. I couldn’t fix her problems; I couldn’t put a positive spin on her situation or even offer much affirmation. I was mostly silent while she talked. “I’m so sorry,” I said, again and again between her sobs. My words felt small and pathetic.
Those kinds of phone calls, that kind of walking alongside in the awkward and the painful, that’s what Paul means when he urges us to Remember as if.
As if demands that we step out of our comfortable place. As if means we enter into someone else’s suffering, offer our inadequate words and our compassionate quiet, and carry, if only for a moment, a bit of their pain.
Questions for You:
Can you think of someone in your life right now who might need you to walk alongside them through a difficult time? What’s one small way you might do that?