Day 2: Abyss Watching: Staring into the pain of others
“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it…” Luke 19:41
One of God’s fascinating attributes is what theologians call immutability, which means that He is never overtaken by His emotions. He is in control, not only of the universe, but also of His person. Jesus exemplified being human yet in control of His emotions here in Luke 19. He wept over Jerusalem for knowing what was to happen to them because of rejecting Him as Messiah. Jesus was not afraid to show emotion, nor is He afraid to stare into the abyss of humanity. He doesn’t just stare and cry. He takes off his belt and whips the greedy merchants in the Temple.
Such is not the case for most men. Most dudes equate tears to emotional recklessness. I wish I could say that I had a handle on my emotions but it’s just not true. I can agree with John Maxwell when he jokes about leading himself, “If I had to kick the guy most responsible for my problems, I couldn’t sit down for a week!” While most men view their own tears with disdain, anger is a different story. Sadness and anger are great emotions when expressed in healthy ways.
The point here is not about crying or showing emotion, but allowing our emotions to drive us to do something about what makes us sad. We’re blinded by our own pain and rarely, if ever, do we see the need to stare into the pain of others. Looking into the pain of others and feeling empathy is a virtue. Doing something about it is the result of abiding in Christ. It’s one thing to be heartbroken for others, and another to answer the call to help them. Dudes DO cry over issues that matter, but abiding dudes answer the cries of the broken.
I spent my last two years in high school in Ocala Florida, which is about 90 minutes north of Orlando and an hour to either the Gulf or the Atlantic. Most people think of the beach or Disney World when they think about Florida, but some of the most overlooked places of natural beauty in Florida is the variety of natural springs. One such place that I went with a group of friends was called the Devil’s Den. It is a natural spring and a hot spot for divers because of the vast cave system throughout the walls of the cavern. The actual spring is at a depth of 50 feet. The Den’s website says “If you’d been journeying across northern Florida in the early 1800s, you, too, might have thought the site looked like an entrance to the nether world. In those days Devil’s Den was nothing more than a vine-shrouded hole in the ground, hidden beneath spreading water oaks. On chilly mornings, great clouds of steam rose from its mouth, suggesting a chimney from the fires of Hades.”
Not too many places have caught my attention like the Devil’s Den. Looking from the top down it appears to be somewhat of an abyss in the blinding Florida sunshine. When I first looked down into the den I felt a chilly shudder in my spine thinking, “Why would anyone want to go in that thing?!” It wasn’t but a few minutes later that I was down with my buddies in the water looking up through the hole in the earth.
I was a reckless young man but things have changed with age and I’ve grown to be more cautious. I can say with relative certainty that I have nothing to prove, nor the agility to prove it. If I were to go to the den now I can’t say that I’d have the same enthusiasm to explore the limits, or my own limits, for that matter. I can observe beauty from a distance now and appreciate it without having to touch it. The fear I felt initially looking into the den the first time is similar to the hesitation I have in looking into the dens of other’s pain.
Much like myself, you may hesitate to look into the problems of others because of a sense of helplessness, regret for being silent, or for being aloof. Maybe you would feel guilty for living the life others could only dream of. This is how God starts to stir the hearts of His people to answer the pain of others. Maybe He’s been stirring your heart for a certain group of people who are subject to tyranny, systemic poverty, human trafficking, or have no access to a solid evangelical witness, but your comfort stands in the way of God delivering others through you. Comfort is something we take for granted and also serves as an idol.
Rich Mullins was a famous singer and songwriter in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) in the 80’s and 90’s. Many people would at least know of the song “Awesome God” that he wrote. He moved so many people with his music which was an outpouring of his heart. He wrote from his pain and the pain of others. He once told a friend that all “these painful songs are in me if I just have the guts to pull them out.” Sadly he was killed in a car accident outside of Peoria Illinois in the Fall of 1997.
His sister said in an interview, one year after his death, “We used to watch TV and it was mostly cowboys and Indians back then. He would cry when an Indian got killed. You’d see this four year old, sitting there crying with a tear running down his face. It was something that you just never expected to grow into something else. You expected him to grow out of those kinds of things, but he didn’t – he held onto them and they got bigger as he got bigger.” During the last three years of his life he devoted his time and wealth to building homes on Native American reservations and teaching music to children, all because he was willing to look into their pain.
This was not the only den, or abyss, he would stare down into. His music was laden with stuff so complex and painful that writing a song was almost like performing surgery on himself without the shield of anesthesia. Amy Grant comments, “Most of us, we kind of have a brush with God, and we’re enamored and frightened. But it’s always kind of that barely leaning in. Rich just had a way of running headlong into the unknown that was frightening to most of us. But in his own unique way, it seemed he always was able to find the edge and look into the abyss and come back and write a song about it and tell us what he’d seen.”
Some choose the recklessness of abyss watching and some refuse to look. Some are mildly curious about what really goes on down in someone’s pain but have low power or desire to help. One thing’s for certain that choosing to stare into an abyss will change you. Based upon the vile nature of the one you choose, there could be some emotional whiplash as a result. Truthfully, because of the sinful fallen world in which we live, there are billions of problems that will only be fixed by Christ in the flesh when He returns. That doesn’t let us off the hook though. The church is the physical representation of Jesus on the earth and much can be done by Him through us before Christ’s physical return. There’s no doubt that choosing to look into one intently will not allow you to remain unmoved and indifferent. It will change you.
Here’s a few things to consider:
1. Be willing to put others interests first.
This requires humility. Sure, there are thousands of arrogant people who changed the world to some degree, but it is the humble man who abides in Christ with no claim on personal comfort who leaves a deep eternal impact. C. S. Lewis remarked on humility saying, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think of themselves less.” Dudes abiding have no claim on comfort nor the promise beyond the moment you’re experiencing presently. One secret of abiding is that lighting someone else’s path sheds light on your own as well.
2. Expose yourself to situations where people have genuine needs.
Start small if necessary. Go to your local food bank or homeless shelter and talk to a representative about the abyss they stare into every day and then buy them dinner. Go on the next missions trip that your church hosts. While you’re at it, don’t rush to a cush mission-cation, or “Cruise with a Cause” if Haiti is what you need to see and experience. I have yet to go overseas like many of you. I’ve been to Mexico twice and Colombia once, but that limits my exposure to people with completely different problems than I’m even aware of.
3. Continually check your motives.
God may use you as a catalyst in your world to lead out of what you discovered. Getting your eyebrows singed while staring into an abyss will probably hurt but it will also help you to reevaluate your priorities. Here are a few questions for consideration:
- What is an abyss that you’ve chosen to turn away from?
- What’s the worst that could happen if you actually chose to engage it?
- Who’s welfare is at stake by avoiding the abyss?
Abiding in Christ makes one heedless of the comments and critiques of others protecting their comfort from the cheap seats of false enthusiasm. What could God accomplish through you by staring into the abyss of someone’s pain? Are you willing to be reckless, or do you just want to wrecked less? Jesus was willing to stare down your abyss and save you from sure destruction and He’s not done yet either. He’s a serial abyss staring junkie.
May His glaring gaze bring us to the edges while rescuing others from sure doom and save us from our safety.