Accepting our limitations can improve our contribution to God’s mission, writes columnist John Stackhouse.
Here’s some good news: You don’t have to help everybody all the time.
In fact, you mustn’t even try.
In an age of constant news about people in need, a Christian (like any other compassionate person) can feel overwhelmed by the tugs of compassion and conscience. The biblical command, however, is to love your neighbour, not everyone you happen to encounter.
"What about the Good Samaritan?" you might ask. The Samaritan traveller in Jesus’ story comes upon a man in dire straits with no one else around. And the Samaritan can help him. So he does.
The Samaritan is not commended, however, for trying to solve every problem in the life of every person he happened to encounter, much less every person he happened to hear about at every inn he visited on his trip.
Sometimes, yes, we are called to pray for people and help with problems in distant lands. But that’s a complicated issue for another time. (Today, it’s Ukraine. But what happened to Sudan, Nigeria or Eritrea? Are we still praying for the Rohingya and the Uighurs?)
Let’s agree for now that we are called to attend to those Providence has placed in our way. We each have our near ones – at home, work or school, and in the regular routines of life, along with others who have suddenly appeared near us with special needs that we can meet.
Those are our neighbours, and we should care for them.
Meanwhile, we also need to acknowledge that not every needy person nearby is our neighbour.
I’m thinking for example of the people who show up on social media to distract us from the exchange we’re trying to have with sensible people on useful themes. Or perhaps they show up in church to thrust their rigid and persistent agendas into every discussion and every program.
These are the people in our families who insist on attention, lots of attention, and seem never to be satisfied – or, at least, never for long. They cajole, complain, kid and coerce, drawing every conversation back to themselves, making plain their expectations on every matter, and wondering aloud why we aren’t treating them in a kinder, more Christlike way.
Author Gary Thomas has some hard, good words for us about "finding freedom from toxic people" in his book When to Walk Away (Zondervan, 2019). He reminds us we are not obliged to invest in people who refuse to change.
"WWJD?" is a helpful reminder – "What would Jesus do?" But so is "WWJND?" – "What would Jesus not do?" Jesus would not let anyone draw Him away from His Father’s will. The mission is what matters, not appeasing every complainer and critic.
Watch for our upcoming editors’ interview with John Stackhouse at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts
Jesus also told other parables. Consider how the father of the prodigal son did not argue with him when he wanted to leave, nor chase him when he did. The father welcomed back his son when he returned, but that father otherwise went about his business, fulfilling his calling.
Jesus didn’t chase Judas, either. He invited Judas to follow Him, but when Judas ultimately decided on a different path Jesus didn’t plead with him. Jesus sent him on his way and devoted His attention instead to the disciples who actually wanted to heed Him.
Refusing to engage is a legitimate option. In fact we must refuse to engage with such people not because we ourselves are so special – but because God’s mission is. It is not selfish to want to do God’s will. And God’s call is to bear fruit, not to keep pouring water into bottomless buckets.
"Toxic Christians are masters at lecturing other Christians over how they are ‘supposed’ to behave," Thomas writes. Don’t fall for the self-serving lies. Don’t let your conscience be sidetracked into placating the implacable.
Who is my neighbour? The one who is near you whom you can actually help.
That person instead who just wants to exploit you?
Sorry. I must be about my Father’s business.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.