“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philip. 2:4 RSV). Christians are expected to be people who love, and in that love, look after each other. Indeed, if we are people of love, we will give of ourselves, helping them when we can, and not just out of obligation, but because we want to do so. When we have been truly touched by God, when we have been awakened to his mercy and grace, when we are united with him in his love, we are not going to be selfish, but rather, we will uphold each other, doing what we can for each other because we love each other. When someone is weighed down by unjust burdens, we will do whatever we can to lift them up.
Even if we have not yet achieved such perfect love, we can recognize our duty and follow through with our obligations. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do” (Prov. 3:7 RSV). If we follow through this this wisdom, we will see ourselves transformed. In giving, in doing what is just and right, we become transformed, so that the more we do it, the more it becomes natural to us, until at last, we have found ourselves and our being one with such goodness, and so have become the people who live out the dictates of love.
We must not selfishly look after ourselves, feigning an interest purity and piety as an excuse to keep our distance from those who are in need; rather, we must die to the self, die to the vainglory of pretend holiness which often puts the letter of our supposed obligations over the intention which lay behind their establishment. We might have to neglect what others think are our obligations if we are to follow God’s expectations for us. This is, after all, a point Jesus was making in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where many excused themselves from doing what was good and just because they thought it interfered with their religious duty. It is not those who hold themselves aloft from others, seeking purity in quietude, who will attain holiness, but those who live out the dictates of love, even if those dictates end up requiring us to override some secondary concern (such as the Sabbath rest). If, out of love, we work for those in need, even if it means it will get us a “little dirty” in the process, God will reward us: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10 RSV).
We need to help, as best we can, those who are burdened with great sorrows. If all that means is that we show them compassion, then we show them compassion. We should not strike them when they are down. We must not seek to lift ourselves up by thinking ourselves better because we are not facing the struggles they are facing. We must do what we can to help them overcome their struggles. We must do it in the right way. We must be humble, compassionate, indeed, non-judgmental. If we can, we should take their burden upon ourselves, so that they do not have to suffer it all by themselves. This, Paul says, is indeed what is expected of us as we follow after Christ:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1-2 RSV).
Indeed, the good news is that Jesus came to save us all. We, therefore, should build each other up, helping everyone we meet where they are at. We should not put any demands as to where we think they should be before they receive our aid. We should not berate people for thinking and doing differently than us. We should let them follow their conscience where it shall take them without trying to infringe upon that conscience with our warped sense of truth. If we are asked questions, we should give answers, but we must do so in accord with where they are at. We cannot expect others to think like us, to have the same background and foundations as we do; for no one does. We must, like Christ, reach down where people are at, show them love, and be ready to lift them up if and when they are ready. We should do so with hope that God, in his great mercy and compassion, is at work with them, and has a way to save them from their sorrows. The destiny of the world, after all, is not hell, but heaven:
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1Thes. 5:9-11 RSV).
Amma Theodora understood this. Living out in the desert, being a great ascetic, trained in part by Theophilus of Alexandria, she met with many monks, and saw what they went through. There, she found out what truly mattered was not an individualistic ethic where a monk lived out their life in solitude, uncaring about others, but in community, where they realized the fullness of their own personhood in communion with others. To explain this, she told the story of two anonymous monks, one who felt their temptations was too grave that they had no place in the desert, and another who was willing to do anything, even abandon their own monastic vocation, to help their friend:
Amma Theodora also said, ‘There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, “I will go away from here.” As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, “Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.”’
We often become so self-absorbed in our problems that we think there is no way that we will ever find ourselves released from the burdens they put upon us. By ourselves, that might be correct. But we are not expected to deal with them by ourselves. We are expected to help each other, to shoulder each other’s burdens. To overcome the structures of sin in our lives, and in the world at large, we must establish a discipline of love. Through this discipline, we will be able to enact a change so that the structures can be transformed into structures of charity and justice. We might have to lower ourselves, do things which we think is “beneath us,” to help others: but that is what we should expect, as Jesus emptied himself to come to us and help us from the pit of hell (cf. Philip. 2:7). It will not hurt us to help each other; it will not hurt us to be kind to each other as we deal with difficult burdens; it will not hurt us, because we will find by doing just that, we will grow spiritually and move further along the path of salvation.
“Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13 RSV). So many put out stumbling blocks as they act in judgment against what they believe to be the failings of others; we do not know their burdens, we not understand the temptations and struggles they are going through. Instead of judging them, placing demands upon them before we meet with them, we must walk with them. We must show them love. And we must respect them as they make their choices. It can be a heavy burden, but it is the burden which is borne out of love. Obviously, this can be very difficult for us when we see friends, loved ones, even strangers take on difficult journeys. But this is what we must do. It takes an act of faith, trusting in the goodness of God to do this. If we cannot, if we end up judging and condemning others who find themselves facing difficult crises in their life, then we have no faith ourselves, and who are we then to pass judgment on them when it is us who lack faith?
 Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984),84. [Saying 7]
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