“humanity”…or the person next to me?

“The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” – Fyoder Dostoevsky

I’m reading some Russian classics this summer, and was recently reminded of this quote, one of my favorites.  Our friend Fyoder has put his finger on a great deception.  Many of us have romantic notions about our love for humanity.  We grieve over what we see in the world – Palestinians and Israelis in conflict, earthquake victims remaining homeless in Haiti, families suffering great loss because of an oil spill, soldiers traumatized by the horrors of war.  All of it is tragic, and our hearts are full of sympathy and deep emotion, when we think of the tragic condition of humanity.

This kind of sentimentalism, though, is deceptive.  It can trick us into thinking that we really care, but the real care, if we consider the scriptures carefully, is only manifested to the extent that we manifest compassion.  The word means, “to suffer with” and throughout the Bible the message is the same: until we identify with the downtrodden through action and solidarity, our light remains hidden.  Here’s how Isaiah puts it:

“Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed gofree And break every yoke?  Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring thehomeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer” Isaiah 58:6-9

Some observations:

1. Action, not sympathy and sentiment, is our calling. Dostoevsky’s point is that it’s easy to confuse sentiment when we listen to NPR, with real action.  But sentiment is to action, what watching sport is to playing it.  Watching the world cup while wearing a soccer jersey makes me feel athletic, even as I sit and stuff my face with chips as I  critique the passes, the officiating, and the annoying incessant horns.  In truth, I can’t play soccer at all.  The popularity of sport, though, resides our vicarious identification.

2. Our light will only shine to the extent that we respond to the needs around us. This is the overwhelming declaration of what it means to be the people of God.  It’s taught in Genesis 12, where we’re blessed to be a blessing.  It’s reiterated throughout the prophets, including this clear passage in Isaiah 58.  Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 5 when he calls us the “light of the world.”  James says that true religion resides precisely in this realm of showing demonstrable love towards others.

3. Isaiah declares, counter-intuitively, that our care of “the least of these” will result, not in their recovery, but in our own.  God is making it clear that making the justice and generosity of God visible in this world isn’t optional.  We won’t be able to recover our fullest humanness until we’re people who are pouring out blessing, and this only happens by making space in our lives for those with visible needs.

When we encounter poverty and injustice, we might feel sentimental, and comfort ourselves into believing that our emotions mean we care.  But the gap between sentimentalism and action is a grand canyon, and it’s only on the action side of that canyon that light is shining, and our own transformation is occurring.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Elizabeth

    Been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanks.

  • Ken


    This is something that seems to be right at the very core of our society. Overwhelmed by the immensity of the issues around us we fall into a stupor of grief or faux outrage and inaction. I find myself more and more weighing my own strengths and resources to determine where I can actually accomplish something instead of simply fretting about all the issues I can never really effect. As much as I like a qood debate, it doesn’t often help either those I’m debating or even myself.

  • This strikes home. Thanks.

  • Bob Zurinsky


  • Graham

    I love the Isaiah quote. A lot. I just struggle with how to apply it as it can seem so extreme. “Invite homeless people into my home? May sound good on paper but think of all the possible conflicts!”… that sort of thing. My version involves writing checks to non-profits, trying to buy fair trade, etc. but this I am finding is too passive, not really transformative, and allows me to keep a comfortable distance from those in need, buffered by my checkbook. Suggestions?

  • Jeff

    I think Graham hit it on the head with “a comfortable distance.” That may have been the same thing the priest and the Levite were seeking when passing by on the opposite side to avoid the wounded traveler in the story of the good Samaritan. The more wounded the traveler, the greater the mess. The greater the mess, the messier I will get.

    However, it also mentions that the good Samaritan felt compassion. I believe this is a crucial first step. But that compassion must stir us to do something (Richard’s first point), and writing a check is at least that, if not much more. Still, “a comfortable distance” is just enough of a gap to keep US from being changed, and I believe God wants us to engage with the poor because of what it will do to us, and in us (Richard’s third point).

    Interesting that the Samaritan didn’t bring the wounded traveler into his own home, but paid for someone else to care for him. But, even that was after he personally got involved.

  • Will Hale

    Thanks Richard,

    This distinction has been a central part of my early Marriage and Family Therapy program. As someone who must sit with people and their pain, if I cannot love them specifically, all I can provide is empty sympathy and shallow platitudes. But if I can provide compassion and empathy- entering into their world and pain, then God’s transformative work can define the session.

    One of my professors (also a pastor) did a study of Christ’s miracles. What he found was that beyond anything else, it was the presence of compassion that made the miracles possible. Just think of the implications for us, who are Christ’s presence today if we could be Christ’s compassion in action to the individuals around us.

    How do we learn to love the individual? Empathy has helped me- with it I can step out of my anger for, fear or distrust of another person and consider what is behind their actions/words that affect me. Once I realize they have experienced pain, I understand that their actions are a plea for help, a way to protect themselves from more pain. I also realize, if I were in their shoes, I may not do any differently (ie. do any better). With this in mind, I can give up my anger and let God’s compassion for the person replace it, and that affects how I encounter the person. Not that I am perfect in this empathy, but I am trying, not giving up.

  • Lamont

    Spot on Richard!
    My wife gets irratated w/me because I don’t “emote” in a manner that she thinks is worthy of one who has a heart of compassion. I can sit stone faced at all of the tragedy going on around the world (which I don’t, I just don’t show it). I get irritated w/her, because emoting has nothing to do w/compassion. It’s when I am confronted head on w/a situation which demands action that matters. When ya stop and help the person that broke down on the highway. When ya went home and got your tools and floor jack then went back and fixed the tire of a woman w/children in her car. When you’re on your way to church in your Sunday best’s and your nieghbors ox fell in the well and you stop and help, all because you are a Christian! That’s compassion. Even taking the time to watch your unbelieving neighbors children play sports, or went to a community event to support them in their efforts….
    They may not be wolrd stoppers, but they are a part of Eph 2…. the good works that God had fore-ordained for us to walk in!
    All to the Glory of His Grace.
    Walk Hard.