The Benefit of The Doubt

“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian McLauren aka John Watson.  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Perhaps you have heard or used this phrase in your own life; I know that I have.  It seems to be all over social media.  The contours of such a sentiment seem simply to rise naturally from the contours of what we might call a “Christian life.”  If we can live in such a way as to imagine in our mind’s eye that every person we meet is in some way bowed down beneath the weight of a burden, this quote calls upon the compassion, the sympathy, which most of us naturally have for other human beings. 

Through the years I have found that the advanced class in Christianity often calls us to such compassion when we are in the presence of people, even perhaps in conflict with people, who are carrying a burden whose name is pride, conceit, and a kind of underground egoism that is described by Jesus regarding the scribes and the Pharisees. 

Imagine the burden of always needing to be right.  Imagine the burden of always needing to think well of yourself.  Imagine the burden of believing that you are only the physician, the fixer, the answer to the questions and conundrums of human life, but are never in need yourself.  Imagine that you are always the physician and never the patient; the bringer of a medicine of which you yourself are never in need.

Sometimes I read and listen to the words of the Scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels with such ears; persons so burdened, so caught in the “hard battle” of life, that all they can do is offer answers and platitudes about the nature of the God and the universe we share, but they never seem to be able to admit their need, or admit that Jesus might actually be the medicine for an illness they have.

Christianity 101 – we have compassion on those who clearly deserve it; the sick, the poor, the lost.  But what if being cock-sure of your own position in the universe were a kind of sickness, a kind of burden as well, then does the old aphorism, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Does that include the Scribes and the Pharisees described by Jesus?  Can we also give folks like this ministry of the benefit of the doubt?

I expect to meet a few of these people one day, in heaven, who following the Resurrection took Jesus to heart and perhaps changed their lives.  It is always easy for us to love those who are already easy to love – those whose “hard battle” calls upon a natural sympathy. 

However, I believe Jesus goes all the way to the top of the mountain, and that is why He calls us to love our enemies and those who offend us; actually, Jesus is calling us to love those who are not easy to love, and sometimes, sometimes, that person is you and me. 

It’s one thing for us to dwell upon our own efforts to be kind to everyone who is fighting a hard battle; it is something a bit different for us to share compassion, being kind, to those who are unlovable some of the time.  In actuality, the unlovable are us as well, because each of us is unlovable some of the time; and yet, all of us depend upon God for the love that comes to us when we are unlovable.  This is something that we have in common with the Scribes and Pharisees whom we may meet on our way.

When Charles Evans Hughes was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he moved to Washington and transferred his membership to a Baptist church there. His father had been a Baptist minister, and Hughes had been a lifelong witness to his own faith in Christ.

It was the custom in that Baptist church to have all new members come forward during the morning service and be introduced to the congregation. On this particular day, the first to be called was a Chinese laundryman, Ah Sing, who had moved to Washington from San Francisco and kept a laundry near the church. He stood at the far side of the pulpit. As others were called, they took positions at the extreme opposite side. When a dozen people had gathered, Ah Sing still stood alone.  Then Chief Justice Hughes was called, and he significantly stood next to the laundryman.  The lesson for the congregation that day did not need any verbal explanation.

Perhaps Lent is a season when we might want to ask God help us to see, ask God to speak the truth in love to us in such a way as for us to ask, “Who am I in this picture?”

When do I see myself as Chief Justice Hughes?  When do I see myself as the Chinese Laundryman?  And when do I see myself as the good church members, who perhaps through no malice of their own, or because of their own malice, choose to stand opposite the stranger?  Can we ask God to help us see Christ in all of them?

Story: Donald Gray Barnhouse, God’s Covenants, God’s Discipline, God’s Glory (Scripture Truth); reprinted in Men of Integrity (3.3), p. 55

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