I was flipping through channels last week and came across the Catholic channel, EWTN. Mother Angelica was discussing theology with some kids, probably sometime during the 1980s.
Mother Angelica was trying to highlight how wonderful the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ really was. She said that we may love people and feel sorry for them when they encounter misfortune. We may even desire for their situation to turn around for the better, and we may pray for that to happen in their lives. But very few, if any, of us would voluntarily take those people’s pain and suffer it ourselves. We may feel sorry for a person with cancer, she said, but we ourselves would not want to suffer that cancer. She said that her assessment of how human beings are is true of herself, and probably the kids in the audience.
Her goal was to contrast how we are with how God is. God did not just feel sorry for us, she said. Rather, God assumed the human condition. God the Son as Jesus Christ suffered what human beings suffer. Jesus even suffered and died on the cross.
That got me thinking about an apparent tension within Christianity (apparent to me, at least). On the one hand, Christianity wants to present God or Jesus as morally superior to human beings. When we see how God is superior to us, we are encouraged to worship him. On the other hand, Christians are also told that they are supposed to be like Jesus in how they behave. “WWJD” was on bracelets that Christians wore in the 1990s: we were encouraged to ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” when making moral decisions. The thing is, as Mother Angelica said, we do not do what Jesus did. Even a spiritually mature nun like Mother Angelica admits that she does not! That is what makes Jesus so remarkable and admirable: he is vastly superior to us.
We see something similar in the Bible. Paul in Romans 5:7-8 contrasts God and Christ with human beings. Human beings, Paul says, would rarely die for somebody else, even if that person were righteous. Christ, however, died for us while we were still sinners. God’s love is superior to ours, which can enhance our appreciation of God.
At the same time, there does seem to be some notion in the Bible that Christians should imitate Christ. There are many such passages, but let me quote just one of them. I John 3:16 states: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (KJV).
Are we expected to lay down our lives for others? Are we supposed to be assuming other people’s pain and burdens? Obviously, I cannot suffer cancer for somebody else. But should a Christian, say, assume somebody else’s debt? It may be a nice gesture on his or her part, but does God require that of Christians as part of the obedience that God demands?
There are passages in Scripture that appear level-headed on how to help, and when to help, other people. The Book of Proverbs often advises against becoming surety for somebody else’s debt (Proverbs 6:1; 11:15; 17:18), for that goes against a person’s self-interest. The book of Galatians talks about bearing one another’s burdens, but also about each person bearing his or her own load (Galatians 6:2, 5). I Timothy 5 specifies which widows the church should be helping.
It would be tempting for me to walk away from these passages with a selfish attitude, thinking that I am justified in not giving to others. But one cannot escape that giving is a prominent theme in Scripture. The same Book of Proverbs that is against surety promotes giving to people, especially people in need (Proverbs 11:25; 19:17; 22:9; etc.). I Timothy 5:10 speaks highly of the widows who lodge strangers and help the afflicted. There are passages in the Bible about the importance of work, and perhaps one can walk away from those passages thinking that he or she can tell the poor to “Get a job!” and not help them out. But one passage about the importance of work is Ephesians 4:28, which states that people should work with their hands so that they have enough to share with those in need.
I suspect that, on the whole, the Bible (from a Christian perspective) is rather realistic about how we are to imitate Christ. Let’s go back to I John 3:16, which tells Christians to lay down their lives for the brethren. Obviously, Christians cannot do this on a regular basis, for they only have one life to lay down. But what does the next verse say? “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (KJV). I John 3 is about not hating others, but helping the needy when one has the means to do so. That seems to be what imitating Christ is about.
This does not close the door on the subject. Some may feel called to put themselves in dangerous situations for the well being of others. There is also the question of how much to give. Plus, as individuals, we cannot help every single person who needs help. We may justifiably feel reluctant even to help every single person we know who needs help, since, if we do that, there will not be anything left for ourselves (unless God truly does provide, in such cases)!
Something that I was thinking about when watching Mother Angelica was that I have long assumed that Christianity requires me to have deep love for everyone. I figured that I am not only expected to have the sort of love that suffers towards someone I actually do love; I am expected to have that same sort of love for someone I barely know. I doubt that God places this heavy burden on my shoulders. But God does want me to respect the humanity of someone I barely know, and maybe even to help.
I believe that God is superior to us, and that is all right. We can glory in God, while allowing our own limitations to enhance this worship. We are free to be human, each day. But I also believe that we are also called to become better, to think about others, and (in some cases) to help. Some may even be called to saintly acts. Of course, people can use this insight to justify their comfortable middle class lifestyle, and, in those cases, people should probably wrestle with whether they are giving enough, or doing enough. We cannot be totally like Jesus, but we can try to be more like him.