Suppose a stranger approaches you. Someone who’s dirty, ragged, bleeding, and making howling noises. What would you do? Probably the same thing I’d do. I would avoid making eye contact. I’d cross the street, walking quickly, and search for a safe-looking person to help me. Or at least find a safe-looking shelter. I wouldn’t be wondering, What would Jesus do? I’d be out of there!
Interestingly, this exact thing did actually happen to Jesus in Mark 5:1-20.
[A] man possessed by an evil spirit came out from a cemetery to meet him. This man lived among the burial caves and could no longer be restrained, even with a chain. Whenever he was put into chains and shackles—as he often was—he snapped the chains from his wrists and smashed the shackles. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Day and night he wandered among the burial caves and in the hills, howling and cutting himself with sharp stones. Mark 5:1-5, NLT
At the time of this encounter, Jesus – a man – was surrounded by 12 other men. Maybe if my circumstances were similar, I wouldn’t be intimidated by a howling guy like this. Maybe my 12 friends and I would just ignore him. We wouldn’t necessarily feel threatened, but I doubt we’d put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of actually talking to him.
But Jesus talked to him. He found out that the man was called Legion. And he healed him.
People rushed out to see what had happened. A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons. He was sitting there fully clothed and perfectly sane. Mark 5:14-15, NLT
I’ve heard this Bible story many times and have never thought about how Jesus and his disciples may have felt when confronted by this man. After all, Jesus was Jesus. He was God on earth. He held all the power and he knew it. Why be afraid of anything?
As a person who follows Jesus, believes in God, calls herself a Christian…shouldn’t I have the same confidence? After all, in Ephesians 1:19-20 (NLT), Paul writes:
I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead…
The power that RAISED CHRIST FROM THE DEAD is available to me and to all who believe. It’s powerful power. It’s authority, domination, dominion, and serious clout over the greatest obstacle known to man. So when troubles approach us, when others are hurting, when we become aware of needs, we should be the first ones rising up to meet the challenges with Spirit-filled swagger. We should be the first ones, but often, we’re not. Why?
Because we are afraid. I am afraid. I was afraid yesterday, on the first day of my new job. I am a Social Worker, providing assistance to pregnant women and infants on Medicaid. I saw parts of Detroit yesterday that I’ve never seen before. If you’re a Detroiter, you’ll know what I mean when I say I’ve never been in a neighborhood east of Telegraph Rd. Sure, I’ve been downtown lots of times. But I always enter the freeway in suburbia and exit near Comerica Park, Eastern Market, or the Museums. Those exits near boarded-up houses, grafitti-covered businesses, and overgrown lots? Never.
(In fact, here’s some irony: For two years I drove that veiled route to Wayne State University, a school in the well-lit, clean, bustling part of Detroit. And I earned my Master’s degree in social work. Yet, it never occurred to me that I would be called to serve in a place where I was afraid.)
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve considered accepting this job and what it would mean, I’ve spent a lot of time praying. And I have plenty of excuses. I’m a mother of young kids. I’m short and not very strong. But I can’t get away from the feeling that this is where God is calling me for this moment in my life.
I can wring my hands and vent on social media about the injustices of poverty, but who is that helping? The people I am serving can’t afford to live anywhere safer, nicer, or cleaner. They sometimes lack transportation. If FEAR prevents social service workers from going to them, how will they get the services they need? They are God’s children, too.
If you’ve been a follower of Jesus, or even an observer, you probably know the Bible contains many passages about serving others. Jesus called us to deep, profound compassion when telling the parable of the sheep and the goats.
I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me (Matthew 25:35-36, 40 NLT).
Among American Christians, I believe the greatest enemy to that kind of compassion is FEAR.
Somewhere along the way, FEAR convinced us that Jesus didn’t really mean we should invite someone into our home, or personally assist someone who is naked, or go visit a person in prison. Those things take up our time, they compromise our feeling of safety, and they make us uncomfortable.
FEAR tells us that putting extra money in the offering plate covers our obligations when it comes to compassion. We write a check to sponsor a child in Africa, comfortable in knowing that we’ll never have to visit his sparse home or drink his dirty water.
FEAR allows us to be satisfied giving our money to others who administer social service programs.
When an inner-city pastor visits our church and asks for help feeding his neighborhood, FEAR tells us that the best way we can help is to grab our wallets.
We donate clothes at a drop-off center in the suburbs, relieved that someone else will do the FEARful work of handing our old coat to a freezing person.
We wave our anti-abortion banners on social media and in protests, but FEAR stops us from engaging in meaningful, life-changing relationship with a pregnant, at-risk woman.
FEAR keeps our spare bedrooms vacant while shelters overflow.
What should we do then? Grab the first homeless person we can find and invite him or her into our house? Not necessarily.
Should we feel bad about material abundance? If God has blessed us with resources to share, should we withhold our money? No and No.
But financial giving should just be the start. We also need to actively help. What’s a field covered with grain, if the workers are too afraid to come and harvest it? What’s a library filled with books, if the patrons are too afraid to read? What’s the best social service program in the world, if Christians are too afraid to lend a hand?
What we should do is start praying for boldness. We should each ask God what we can do to show compassion to his children. The answer will be different for every one of us. But if we are looking for ways to serve Him, to be compassionate people, we will receive our role.
Christians, fight the fear that paralyzes you.
Fight it with the power…
which comes from the One…
who calls you to be compassionate.
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7