When I was in college, I lived in off-campus housing. The apartment complex was pretty full, and sometimes I would have to park in a lot outside of the parking garage. One morning, when I was heading to work, I came out to find that my car had been broken into. The driver-side window was smashed, stereo stolen, and all my CDs were gone too. I was both a poor college student and an audiophile at this point, so they basically stole everything that I valued. I was crushed, and certain that my car insurance would not pay for it. I drove over to the school and went to the security office. The first thing that the officer said to me after I reported the loss was, “Have you been driving around blaring your music and showing off your sound system?”
Looking back, this is a pretty small event. My life wasn’t ruined, I am not emotionally scarred, but this man’s response still sticks in my mind. It felt callous, heartless, and confusing. I was the victim, but I was being blamed. Honestly, I did play my music loud. I was proud of that system and I enjoyed sharing it with others. I may have been unwise, but did those actions merit the theft? Was it my fault that my stereo was stolen?
I was reminded of this story over the course of the last few weeks while dealing with a much more serious situation. A young woman in our village had been raped by a close friend. She talked to friends to find out they had been raped by him too. They told her there was nothing she could do about it. She talked to pastors, who told her she needed to repent of sexual immorality. Her husband is still angry with her because, “She should have known not to go to the field with him.” As I learned about the situation I found myself perplexed. These people in her life were not denying that the rape had occurred, but rather, they were saying it was her fault. Why are they blaming her? Did this young woman act unwisely? Maybe. However, in talking to her, it was clear she was not expecting her friend to rape her. I don’t think she flirted with him. But even if she did, did her actions merit rape? Did she just get what was coming to her?
As perplexed as I have been, I have to also admit that there is something in me that lacks compassion for others, especially when I believe that they are dealing with the consequences of their own actions. When that guy who drives recklessly gets into a car accident, part of me says, “You made your bed!” Those videos that show a man talking trash finally get punched in the face resonate with me to some degree. “If he didn’t want to be punched, he shouldn’t have talked trash.” I have come to realize that part of me rejoices in punishment. Part of me wants people to get what they deserve.
In the midst of thinking through these issues, I read the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10:17-22. I am sure you know the story, but read it again with me,
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
I have read this passage a million times, but working through this situation, there was something that struck me. Right when the young man said that stupidest, most arrogant, and foolish thing, Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus knew this man. He clearly knew his heart. He knew this man was a sinner. He knew how proud it is to say that you have kept the Law from your youth. And yet, he did not say, “Give me a break!” He didn’t look to his disciples and say, “Can you believe this guy?” If anyone had the right to say, “I am surrounded by idiots,” it was Jesus. That was not his attitude. He loved him.
Jesus then, of course, told him a hard truth. He revealed that his love of wealth needed to be abandoned if he was going to follow Jesus. He did this knowing that the young man would walk away. But Jesus wasn’t mocking, he wasn’t rejoicing in someone getting what was coming to them. Jesus spoke these hard words in love.
The way that Jesus responded to the rich young ruler is so different from what comes naturally to me. When I see someone suffering, my mind often seeks to figure out how they are at fault for their own suffering. And that response is wrong for two main reasons:
1. We should never take pleasure in the punishment of sinners.
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)
What is it in us that wants people to get what they deserve? Why do we enjoy the news stories where the “Karen” loses her job? Why does it feel good when certain people get cancelled on Twitter? Whatever it is, I do not believe that it comes from God. God loves justice, hates evil, and NEVER takes pleasure in the death of the wicked. God would much rather sinful men turn from their ways and live. Karma is not a biblical principle. If everyone got what they deserved, no one would be saved.
So, if our delight in punishment does not come from God, where does it come from? It must at least come from pride. We must think we are better than others, that we have the right to judge them. If it were not pride, could we really rejoice when someone gets what is coming to them? We, who have been saved not by works but by grace alone? Whatever it is that makes our first reaction that of blame, judgment, and doubt, it is of the flesh and not of the Spirit. It is much more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus. Jesus looked at an absurd young man, who genuinely believed he had it all figured out, and he loved him. How would the world be different if we responded to accusations, and sins, and proud statements first with love?
2. Our first response to suffering should be compassion.
When someone is suffering, our first response should be compassion. If you don’t think this is right, spend some time reading the Gospels. Jesus was a man of compassion. His parable of the prodigal son makes his compassion clear. You know the story, a son tells his father he wants his inheritance now (basically saying he wishes he were dead). The son runs off, spends his money on prostitutes, and then suffers because of his choices. When he finally comes home, how does his father respond? Jesus says,
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)
The father’s first response in this story is compassion. He ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him. He didn’t doubt his repentance. He didn’t remind him of his offences. He comforts him and welcomes him. Did the son get what he deserved? Yes. Did he still need comfort? Yes.
Rape is a strange case. It is so private and hidden. The difference between a rape and consensual sex is a matter of the will and words spoken in secret. It is often physically indetectable, often impossible to prove, and almost always without witnesses. Shame and fear keep women from talking, which leads to a time gap between the crime and reporting. Maybe it is because of these factors, or maybe it is something else, but for whatever reason it seems that for many, the first response to a claim of rape is doubt. Because of this doubt, we question the victim, demand proof, and look for ways that she brought this upon herself.
What if our first response was compassion? What if, before any questions, before voicing any doubts, what if we showed them love? Even if they made unwise choices, or were dressed inappropriately, what if we hugged them, and cried with them? What would this compassion cost us? Is it possible that we might comfort someone who is lying to us? Sure, but is that so bad? Is it worse than the alternative: devaluing and shaming a victim? I don’t have any reason to believe that God would be upset with me for comforting a liar. They are sinning in lying, not me in comforting. However, if I attack a victim, can I claim to be innocent?
Compassion can make all the difference
This situation is actually the first time I have personally counseled a victim of sexual abuse. I don’t know if I handled it well when she first told me. I was confused, not really sure what had happened. She was distraught, and constantly blaming herself. I could tell that she was confused, constantly asking for forgiveness, but not really sure what she did wrong. Her relationship with her husband has been deeply harmed, and she feels like she is the cause, but she doesn’t know how to fix it.
She was so confused that when she first told me I thought maybe the issue was adultery. However, once I understood what had happened, I lead her to read Deuteronomy 22:23-27. This passage deals with two situations, one in the city and one in the field. In the later case, when a woman is raped and there was no one around he help or hear her the Bible says, “she has committed no offense punishable by death.” When this young woman realized that this was the case for her, she lit up. It was like a weight had been taken off of her shoulders. She is still hurt, still dealing with a strained marriage, but now I can tell she has much more peace.
If we would seek to be like Jesus by showing compassion to those who suffer, what a difference it would make! Today, 20 years after my stereo was stolen, I remember that security guard. He may have been a godly man, but I remember him for his callousness. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I remembered him for his love? My friend who was raped is starting to heal, but I think she would be much farther along if she had received compassion at first, rather than blame. I have heard that the majority of rape victims never come forward to expose the crime. It makes sense to me. Why come forward if what you are going to receive is blame and anger?
As I am working through this counseling situation, one thing has become clear: If Jesus responded with love when he KNEW the young man was guilty, we ought to respond with love whether we know they are guilty or not. This doesn’t mean we “always believe the woman.” I wish we could, but history has proven that some women do lie. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be rigorous investigation, there should be. However, it does mean that we should not wait to show compassion until we are confident that we understand the situation fully.
We who claim to love the truth, should make it easier for people to tell the truth. We who have been saved by grace alone, should extend grace and mercy to those around us. We who have been given eternal life, ought to repent at any joy taken in suffering. We who receive so much more than we deserve, ought to give better to others than they deserve. Maybe if this is the kind of environment we foster, more suffering people will find their way to Christ. If we want to draw people to him, we ought to first live like him.