Philo of Alexandria once said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” I have carried this mantra for awhile now, beginning when I taught at a public high school. There were days when a student’s behavior would be so infuriating that I would want to scream! As a pastor, I occasionally meet people who provoke a similar reaction. It is helpful, then, to remember that there is more going on than meets the eye. People wrestle with sorrow and loss and heartache all the time. Dreams and loved ones die in painful and tragic ways. We may interact with people in public on a “normal” basis, but inside, they are feeling anything but normal.
Tom Rachman has written a novel called The Imperfectionists. Through the lens of a struggling newspaper in Italy, we glimpse the complexity of the lives of a host of characters. Rachman has brilliantly woven their lives together: each chapter focuses upon one employee of the newspaper and tells a story from that perspective. As the narrative unfolds, the reader catches glimpses of different people who will later appear, which enables the reader to gain an understanding of the actions of each character. Once we have seen things from their point of view, we learn the battles they were fighting. I found myself having compassion for characters whom I had previously dismissed, discounted, or discredited…even people whom I would have yelled at!
At New Dublin Presbyterian, we are currently studying the First Epistle of John on Wednesday mornings. As background, I begin our time together by identifying intersecting themes from this short letter and the Gospel of John. For instance, you will notice a great similarity in vocabulary and theology by reading the opening chapter of each book (John 1:1–14; 1 John 1:1–4). “Love” is also a major theme in each, specifically, agape love: the kind that Jesus defined as a willingness to lay down one’s life for another person (John 15:13). Agape love is sacrificial and, therefore, demonstrated by actions (for example, see 1 John 3:17). It is interesting to read the famous John 3:16 about God’s love for the world alongside the corresponding chapter and verse from the First Epistle of John: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16).” We are called to love even as God has loved us.
During Bible study, we began to unpack some of the implications of practicing this agape love towards others. We decided that this love might very well be perfect, but last time we checked, we didn’t live in a perfect world. What about people who try to take advantage of us? One man asked, “Is it love if I allow someone else to walk all over me?”
No, I don’t think so. Abiding by abuse is not abiding in God’s love. But I also see how the characters in The Imperfectionists so often had conflict with one another because they did not know the other’s story.
We, too, live in an imperfect world full of selfish and rude people who sometimes make us want to scream. I believe that agape love is the best way to make peace in such an imperfect world, but perhaps we need to take things a step at a time. Instead of immediately asking people to be willing to die for one another, maybe we could start by promoting a little kindness. Something as simple as suspending judgment can lead to something as profound as compassion, which, in turn, may just lead to something as sacred as love.