July 13, 2014
Series on Compassion, Number One
Romans 8;1 – 11
Compassion derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning “to suffer, undergo, or experience.” So “compassion” means “to endure [something] with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view. That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.
In many ways compassion is alien to our modern way of life. I have become a bit suspicious of compassion myself, feeling that it is too soft a way to practice in our highly competitive and get-ahead world. I need to put myself first otherwise I will be stepped on. I would sometimes rather be seen as charismatic, a powerful leader, a successful pastor than compassionate.
Compassion is not our first response upon seeing another person and their experience. Our first response to most situations is with attachment, defensiveness, judgment, control, and analysis. Our first response is seldom compassion. Let’s all admit that we start there, thinking, “How will this affect me?” “How can I get back in control of this situation?”
Compassion does not have its own power, but some would argue that compassion has a power of its own. Art forms and religion propel us into this beautiful power, a new place within ourselves where we find a degree of serenity. Compassion, if cultivated, will acquire a dynamic power of its own. Religious systems have all discovered that it is indeed possible to nourish the shoots of compassion.
In our perilously divided world and church, compassion is in our best interest. To acquire it, however, will demand an immense effort of mind and heart. We are addicted to our egotism. We cannot think how we would manage without our pet hatreds and prejudices that give us such a buzz of righteousness. Yet it is possible to nurture and develop compassion, to live free from fear, to know that all of my desires are fulfilled.
But first, before beginning on the way of developing our compassion, we need to experience the depth of God’s compassion for us. There is no other way to begin. Without that experience we can be compassionate but we will end up with a religious self-help program, an understanding that we can love and serve and pray in our own strength and that is debilitating because we lack the inner resources to live out of compassion all of the time.
We put up a lot of good excuses and feel a lot of fear about experiencing God’s compassion just as we give excuses about developing our own compassion. But you are forgetting about the law of God…But I must need to do something…But If I let down my defenses and my authority…But why would God choose to experience someone else’s pain? Doesn’t this make your God weak?
There is a fear of this depth of love, a fear that in the end it will run out, a fear that at the end of my life there will be a judgment according to the laws. Sometimes our fear of love can even be violent, because love sees us as we are – we can’t stand that.
In Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, Paul confronts the church with the depth of God’s love that pierces through all of our excuses and fears.
In Romans we hear a word of assurance, a promise that the very thing we are unable to do, breathe life into ourselves — for, we are mortal — is that which the Spirit of Christ has already done in us. And echoing through this assertion of faith is the credo that ends Romans 8 and which under girds all those who, through God’s intervention, are spirit-infused: nothing created can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul celebrates that love liberates people. It gives them hope. Here in 8:9 he speaks of God’s Spirit entering people. In the same verse he speaks of Christ’s Spirit entering us. It is really all the same. The God who meets in compassion in Christ is there for us in the present. We stop being isolates. We become God’s (8:9). Much earlier Paul spoke of the glory which humanity has lost by its alienation and sin (3:23). Now we can become what we were made to be. .
Rather than showing disrespect for the Law of God, enshrined in scripture, as some Christians suggested Paul was doing, he is proclaiming a gospel that liberates people to live in ways that fulfill and more than fulfill what the Law asks of them. They do so, however, not by trying harder but by becoming engaged in a relationship that has the effect of a changed behavior.
In 8:5 Paul explains the contrast. People live according to “the flesh” or according to the Spirit. They are two mindsets. By the first Paul means trying to improve yourself by your own efforts and remaining focused on yourself. By the latter he means opening yourself to the transforming reality of love through the Spirit. “Flesh” is not neutral here nor does it mean our human nature in itself, let alone our sexual nature as if to be human is bad. “Flesh” is a certain way of living, a perversion of our true selves.
Our passage comes in at 8:6 where Paul elaborates further. If you set your mind or focus just on yourself in a selfish kind of way, you will not succeed. It is the way of death. The way to liberation is to let go of focusing only on your self and of making yourself self sufficient, even when that means trying to help yourself by keeping the Law. It is to open yourself to being loved. That includes dropping the defenses and the pretenses that we build up when we are trying to protect ourselves and make ourselves better.
Paul needs to open the eyes of his hearers — who are already believers — to the reality of where they are. The True Self, the life of the Spirit, does not teach us compassion as much as it IS compassion. They are in the Spirit and so they can allow their orientation, their deepest desires and the focus of their lives to be about God’s life and compassion. The requirement for being in the Spirit is that the Spirit is in us. It is the Spirit of God that lives in us (verses 9, 11). In this new reality, then, God has made available God’s own Spirit through the work of God’s own Son.