I had finished an evening of Bishop interviews and was about to head home when the office phone rang. A woman in the ward asked if she could discuss a problem with me. I was tired but glad to do my father-of-the-ward duty.
She told me that she was totally disappointed with her husband. She found him to be completely useless. As she warmed to the subject she declared that he had never contributed anything to her or their family.
I should tell you about her husband. He was indeed somewhat scatterbrained. I think of him as a gentle eccentric. But he worked hard as a university professor, supported his family well, was almost uniformly gentle, spent spare time caring for their home, and was active in the Church.
The woman who called was famously volatile so, in spite of the seeming unfairness of her accusations, I made extra efforts to be understanding, patient, and supportive of her. The woman continued her complaint. In fact, she continued for more than an hour.
Two response options seemed to be available to me:
- I could agree with her. The troubled woman seemed to favor this option. She seemed to want justification to exit her disappointing marriage. She was frustrated and unhappy.
- I could disagree with her. I could challenge her to see her husband’s contributions and intentions.
For an hour or two I did something like #1. I tried to be supportive even though I didn’t fully agree with her. Then, for 5 minutes, I did #2. Because her complaints were unfair and extreme, I challenged her to be more balanced. That was when our discussion broke down. I had missed the real point. She was trying to tell me something I was missing entirely. I was listening to the words and missing the message.
She was trying to tell me that she felt lonely and trapped. She had been injured by life. She, like the man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho in Jesus’ famous parable, felt wounded and half dead. Was the problem one of crushed idealism? Was it one of conflicting styles between husband and wife? Was it a matter of exhaustion and loneliness?
I will never know. By turning my will against hers, I closed off the channels of communication. I was suckered into a debate about the merits of her complaint and missed the cry of her soul. I was like either the priest or Levite. I had walked around the injured one without being touched by the feeling of her infirmity (See Hebrews 4:15).
Imitating a better model
I wish I had known at the time how to be a good Samaritan. The Samaritan did not chide the injured one for his foolish journey. He did something wonderfully different. “When he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:33-34).
In this great story Jesus offers us the model of a compassionate healer. The good Samaritan does not even consider the foolishness or deservingness of the injured traveler. He does not seek to assign blame. He has compassion, offers all the healing available, and carries him to a place of further healing.
Consider how much better compassion serves us than any debating of culpability. I did not need to weigh in on her argument or her husband’s merits. I could offer compassion. Imagine that I had said any or all of the following:
- You must feel terribly lonely.
- You sound very hurt and disappointed.
- Every day that you feel that way must be a terrible burden.
- I don’t know how you keep going when you feel that way.
Note that none of these compassionate responses suggest that I either agree or disagree with her. I do not need to take sides. I simply offer compassion on the altar of her suffering.
Yet there is another vital step on the road to being made whole. When an injured one is starting to feel peaceful, we carry her or him to the inn where the Perfect Innkeeper and His helpers can minister to her. As the pastor of her soul, I could have offered my compassion and tears. Then I might have invited her to the next stage of healing. I might have invited her: “I honor you for continuing to try when you feel so discouraged. Given that you have made covenants with God and your husband, what do you think God would have you do to make your marriage more of what it should be?”
I have no illusions that she would immediately say, “Wow! I have not been fair to my husband. I need to cultivate some charity in my heart and find ways to work with him.” A woman who had felt hurt and alienated for decades was not going to instantly become a glad spouse. Healing takes time—and often a big chunk of eternity.
But by trying to force my version of correction on her, I dishonored the only One who can heal reliably. I tried to play healer and righter of wrongs. I turned my will against her and she turned hers against me. I wish I had known more about how to invite people to the Healer.
Periodic conversations with her might have involved continuing doses of compassion. And various forms of the question about God’s plan for her might have been supplemented by a joint exploration of scripture. We could have sought to be taught from on High.
Injury in the workplace
Recently I experienced another form of the same challenge. A colleague shared with me that she worried that our work group was sometimes too negative. Sometimes we may have ganged up on this administrator or that colleague. She was right. But notice the complication. When a co-worker complains about an administrator, I can challenge my co-worker. “I think we should speak more kindly.” But maybe this is akin to telling the injured traveler that he was unwise to travel alone from Jerusalem to Jericho. Maybe I am turning against my co-worker. If I accuse the complainer of being judgmental or a gossip, I have become an accuser rather than a healer.
So how do we bring a positive spirit to our conversations without turning against co-workers, friends, and family members? The formula is the same. First, we show compassion. We try to understand what the complaint means to the person who makes it. Maybe the person feels personally hurt or worried about her job. We offer empathy. Second, we invite positive action: “What do you think we can do to make things better with that person?”
God has not appointed us to be the ultimate fixers. He invites us to be fellow travelers. If I hope to be the kind of fellow traveler that the good Samaritan was, I must monitor my heart. Is it filled with harrowing or healing, tearing down or lifting up, accusing or advocating?
The good Samaritan not only carried the injured traveler to a place of healing, he also paid the two pence for future healing. That two pence was the exact amount of the man’s annual temple tax. In other words, he actively sought to put the person right with God. When we accuse anyone—a complaining co-worker, an unhappy spouse, or an imperfect administrator—of badness, we are stealing from their account with God. We are presuming to regulate His goodness and love.
The story of the good Samaritan was evoked by the question about neighbors and our obligation to love them. Jesus’ message to all of us is that anytime we see anyone who is injured, we are invited to minister with all the healing means available to us. I think He even challenges us to see that those who are mad at a spouse, a child, a neighbor, or the world are also injured ones. Underneath the anger is hurt. We are invited to carry all injured souls to Him. That is the duty of every believer.
Thanks to Barbara for her penetrating insight and welcome suggestions.
I enjoyed this- thank you for sharing.
First, I admire that you patiently and compassionately listened and were supportive for more than an hour. I also admire that you considered the outcome and recognized an even better way to handle that and other similar situations.
Regarding the parable, it is wonderful, and you have really brought it to life. For me, the key is to truly love our neighbor. When we are filled with love for others and as we convey that love and compassion, I think our actual words are less important as others understand that we truly care and want to help them.
Also, for me, compassion is usually not a normal reaction. I think that having the compassion of the Good Samaritan requires not just saying or doing compassionate things but being compassionate. It requires a real change of heart.
Thank you again.