In my life, I’ve learned that we only ever have two kinds of conversations: deflection or embrace. In a deflected conversation, things stay as thin as the sheen of oil on a puddle. Talk turns to TV, restaurants, maybe other people’s news. These conversations are undemanding, and they’re also easy to leave because you aren’t really engaged. A conversation marked by embrace, though, has dimension and heft. You may start on the surface, but when the opportunity to go deeper presents itself, you don’t swerve back to the easy shallows of trivia and anecdotes. Instead, you head for the deeper water of joy and sorrow.
It’s been my experience that even in the church, we all too often choose deflection. Some of this is a matter of manners. In my relatively stable urban social setting, people mind their own business and call it virtue. But why all these arm’s-length manners?
On balance, we are not pain-seeking creatures. We certainly avoid our own hurts and heartaches, but in a cosmic twist, we aren’t limited to our own feelings. We have empathy, the ability to resonate with someone else’s experience. So seeking comfort becomes not just avoiding our own pain, but sometimes avoiding connection. We mitigate the risk of knowing too much about our neighbors lest we feel the pang of their need. We deflect.
This is far from the choice Jesus made. The very fact of Jesus is that God poured His own self into creation. You can’t get much more in someone’s business than to move in with the person—a truth I’ve often collided with in the unvarnished intimacy of marriage, and in raising two boys who will track me like a bloodhound if I leave the room for more than 90 seconds. When Jesus became Immanuel, God with us, He made it clear that He wanted to be near our business and love it as His own.
In my relatively stable urban social setting, people mind their own business and call it virtue.
This decision, of course, involved considerable pain. You have to wonder at the thoughts of a young Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, that first time a horsefly took a bite out of the back of His neck. As much as the pains of a body must have been an unsavory novelty, though, I wonder more at what Jesus felt the first time He saw someone’s face swollen and damp from weeping.
Without the unconscious barriers we put up to keep others at a manageable distance, Jesus had a degree of empathy we can scarcely imagine. As He walked among the pleading crowds of aching, lost, and hungry people—not to mention the rich, powerful, and self-satisfied folks plotting His death—it must have been heartbreaking to feel their burdens. Yet walk He did, and with nothing but a cross waiting for Him.
In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” my fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry wrote, “So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute. Love the Lord. / Love the world. Work for nothing.”
When Jesus became Immanuel, God with us, He made it clear that He wanted to be near our business and love it as His own.
I love it when Jesus “won’t compute,” because it invites us to reconsider. Why is Jesus so relationally generous? Because He did not fall from heaven, but rather He descended and brought a perfect heavenly nature with Him. When Jesus looked at us in our world, He saw an entire dimension we blinded ourselves to way back in Eden. Love for the invisible things of heaven illuminated Jesus’ way, revealing not just our obvious wounds but also those marks that show only on the soul and are so easy to hide—even from ourselves. Jesus’ way calls us to draw near enough to know something of one another’s soul.
We create barriers in all directions—of race, income, creed, and even zip code. But Jesus destroyed every dividing wall, showing that such distinctions are mere animosity rising from a lie like a puff of yellow smoke. We can pass right through them to rejoice and weep with whoever is on the other side, the lowly as well as the lofty.
Certainly, embracing people still takes risk. To forge relationships in a world wounded on a cosmic scale is to risk sharing one another’s suffering. But we must not deflect. Jesus drew near as the emblem of what fully lived humanity looks like in this world. For Him, it was heavenly nature. For us, embracing people will take continual sacrifice, starting with discomfort. I don’t think it’s an accident that after Paul exhorts us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, he moves quickly to talk of hospitality, humility, and helping each other, which of course presumes we know each other. Relational courage is the way commended to us as a sign of our faith—and this is not commanded as a burden but offered as the beautiful, distinctive, humanizing vision of neighborly love. So, let’s talk.
Illustration by Vincent Mahé