Fear and the Loss of Compassion

By Darrell Yoder on December 21, 2015

It's Christmas, and millions of people are on edge. Those living in the Middle East are familiar with this fear, but it's new (or at least more intense) for many of us. We've watched with horror as ISIS fighters commit atrocities and export their violence to Africa, Paris and (perhaps indirectly) San Bernardino. We hear about the growing domestic threat in the US.

With everything coming closer to home, we all quite naturally rehearse in our minds what we would do if we were attacked. I was raised Mennonite (think: pacifism) and went to college at Liberty University (think: the opposite of pacifism), so I understand all too well the different Christian perspectives on self-defense. Thoughtful Christians have different views, but I appreciated Tyler Huckabee's response on relevantmagazine.com to Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s rather thoughtless comments.

Tyler strikes the right tone. When our fear (or our rage) leads us to celebrate and applaud the potential need to kill someone, we've lost something important. My friend and colleague Dr. Tim Gombis, who teaches New Testament at GRTS, would say we've lost the cross.

Here's the problem: Many of us, including followers of Jesus, seem to be giving in to fear and allowing it to dictate how we see and respond to others. This possible quote from Thomas Aquinas stands out:

"Fear is such a powerful emotion that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."

As followers of Christ, we're called to "clothe yourselves with compassion" (Colossians 3.12). But when we're afraid, it can be hard to focus on anything other than our fear. We lose sight of the suffering of others and put our interests ahead of theirs—even those who are the most desperate for our help (e.g., refugees, immigrants and people of color who are oppressed more than we often realize).

I remember the fear I felt immediately after the Paris attacks and how sensible it seemed to stop taking refugees or to only take Christian refugees. For a few moments, my fear was powerful enough to drive compassion right out of my heart. I'm glad it was just for a few moments.

Fear is an understandable human emotion, but fear that distracts us from compassion is incompatible with faith in Christ.

Our fear should drive us instead to depend on God, to face evil with courage, and to stand compassionately with those who suffer. At the heart of the Church's mission is to come alongside those who suffer and point them to hope in Christ. Putting ourselves at risk in this is a given, not something to be avoided at all costs. We certainly should be willing to put ourselves at risk for our loved ones (who isn't?), but we should also be willing to put ourselves at risk for others.

In my view, we don't need to let evil have its way. There is a time for self-defense and a time to stop evil in its tracks and bring justice. Governments have a role to play (Romans 13.1-7), and they are all accountable to God for upholding justice and righteousness. But, and more importantly, we don't need to collapse into fear, anger and suspicion, which is exactly where some presidential candidates and media voices are taking us. They take us there on every issue, by dividing people into two groups, good and bad, and demonizing those who disagree.

Fear, anger and suspicion are not legitimate motivators for followers of Jesus, at least not when they drive out compassion. We are called to something better.

Consider this for yourself. What impact does fear have on your ability to live out the love-driven gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel we celebrate at Christmas. How has fear shaped your response to people who need compassion? Refugees and Muslims are the current topic, but there are others. What about immigrants and minorities? How have fear, anger or suspicion shaped your response to them?

Move a little closer to home. Has fear, anger or suspicion ever driven the way you relate to friends or loved ones? It can be hard to have compassion for someone who has hurt us. If you have children, has fear ever driven your parenting decisions at the expense of your children? If you're married, has fear or anger or suspicion ever driven the way you treat your spouse?

"Fear is such a powerful emotion that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."

It's worth reflecting on.

Lead image courtesy of Foreign Commonwealth Office

Category: Culture