Consider carefully the words of Joseph Smith:
All the religious world is boasting of righteousness;
it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind,
and hinder our progress, by filling us with self righteousness.
The nearer we get to our heavenly Father,
the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls;
we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders,
and cast their sins behind our backs.
My talk is intended for all this society;
if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.
(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241, emphasis added)
Jesus exemplified this truth about compassion. Those whom Jewish society condemned or marginalized, Jesus embraced. The woman taken in adultery. Lepers. Publicans. Where society saw enemies and irritants and turned away, Jesus reached out in compassion to heal and bless.
We imagine that we are far more compassionate than the New Testament Jews. And they thought they were more compassionate than people of early ages. So, what does self-righteousness look like in our time? How can we know how we are doing at compassion?
Joseph gave a very clear metric: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls.” We may know how much compassion we have by the way we treat perishing souls.
Who are the perishing souls? Seemingly it would include anyone who seems to be off the path—and anyone we consider annoying. Maybe those who have “made mistakes,” those whose marriages failed or got fired from a job. It might also include those who seem to be know-it-alls or ne’er-do-wells.
If we were to tick through our ward directory, would we find that we divide the ward into the folks we like and those we judge? Those we like can make mistakes, give bad talks, and wear frumpy shoes, yet we forgive them. But those we don’t like draw our ready condemnation for almost anything. Often, we are irritated because they are simply different from us in their views or their style. As Irving Becker observed, “if you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.”
This past week a woman shared a reflection about someone who was in the youth program with her in the ward she grew up in. He just passed away at the age of 38.
She said upon meeting this individual, you would have immediately been annoyed. He would have rubbed you the wrong way—and it would have been on purpose. He loved mischief which was hard to get past. She then wrote,
“And yet…. This impulsive, hyperactive, inappropriate child was special. A gift. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed harder than when in his presence. His energy, creativity and noise were a lot. But so was the brainpower, the humor, and the selfless love and assistance he offered to anyone brave enough to take it.
I’ve thought of him a lot over the years, particularly when I meet someone who rubs me wrong. I remember him when I reevaluate a first impression (or second, or third). He taught me something invaluable; the snap rejection of an unconventional soul could lead to missing out on the great joy, happiness and treasure of a true friend.”
Compassion is essential to daily life. It may mean taking a few minutes with a child who is having a bad day. It may involve offering words of kindness to an irritable spouse. It certainly includes offering kindness and forgiveness to the neighbor who annoys us. And it will regularly entail looking beyond the quirks in ward members.
So, even now, as you reflect on the people in your life, who are the ones God is calling you to love and lift—especially those you wouldn’t have chosen on your own?
In Jesus’ most memorable lesson on compassion, He told of a person journeying the road of life looking for opportunities to bless those who are injured. But the good Samaritan was not wandering aimlessly; he came equipped with healing balm and soul-commitment. Jesus’ invitation to us is to do the same. As we find souls who are injured and lost—the very people we normally avoid—we are invited to be healers. We can offer the oil of human connection and the wine of sacred love. We can carry the injured to places of healing.
We can rewire ourselves so that those instinctive feelings of disgust awaken us to opportunities to heal.
For whom is God currently inviting you to have compassion?
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Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful addition to this article.