The closer you get, the easier it is to love.
Yet, the closer you get, the easier it is to see one’s flaws.

isaac1Part of my job includes teaching impressionable college freshman about the wonders of Christian theology. This includes, in large part, interaction with the great thinkers of the past; they are required to take the plunge and read primary sources, even when its painful (St. Anselm, I’m looking at you). In this year’s primary source reader, my colleague added an excerpt from a 7th century Syriac Christian bishop, Isaac of Nineveh.

To be perfectly honest, I had never read any of his work until this semester. He was a committed ascetic, devoting his life to the inward contemplation of the soul among other things. Legend has it that his diet consisted of a few loaves of bread each week and a paltry portion of vegetables. Probably beets … because beets are horrible.

Yet when he writes, love pours out. He describes a way of grace that is wholly sacrificial. A few of his proverb-like words:
‘Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.
Be crucified, but do not crucify others.
Be slandered, but do not slander others.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and week with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.
Suffer with the sick.
Be afflicted with sinners.
Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.
Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.’

And quite a bit later, this interesting nugget:
‘Love is the child of knowledge.’

For Isaac, the essence of Christian love is tied up in two concepts: Nearness and Forbearance.

  • Nearness is how a Christian draws toward the hurting directly. As a Christian lives out his faith, he is forced to encounter his neighbor in a way that is impossible from distance. Nearness is when the crows-feet of a joyous face can be seen. Nearness is when the tear streaks of the cheeks can be traced. Distance says, ‘I’ll pray for you’ or ‘You’re in my thoughts and prayers!’ Nearness is urgent, immediate, and raw. It says, ‘We’re coming to the King in prayer right now, right here. Buckle up.’ Distance sends money, nearness sits in ashes next to the hurting.
  • Forbearance is Isaac’s tone of self-sacrifice. He counts all burdens as nothing if, in fact, the afflicted can experience a glimmer of God’s love through the act of vicarious shielding. The Christian’s disposition is one of taking on. Christian love bears heavy loads and does everything it can to lighten the burdens of the neighbor. In fact, the nearness we share with a person in our immediate company produces this forbearance. After all, love is begotten of knowing the other person.

Love is the child of knowledge (or, perhaps, truth) precisely because it forces a confrontation. Knowledge requires intensive interaction with a subject, even if that subject is a person. The more you know about your neighbor (her history, her personality, her loves and fears), the less willing you are to dismiss them. You see their flaws more clearly, but for some reason, those flaws matter less. The act of knowing becomes the fertile ground in which the subject changes from a thing to a beautiful person. And, as GI Joe taught us, …

 For the modern man, this quest for nearness is simultaneously present and fleeting. Skype makes the distant relative come alive a mere 18 inches in front of my face. My overall reach—my eyes and ears, in this case—has been extended by the aid of remarkable technologies. Marshall McLuhan called technologies ‘extensions of ourselves.’

The flip side of this extended reach, however, is that the user increasingly becomes far-sighted. For the first time in human history, one can watch events unfold half-way across the world through multiple angles. The Arab Spring movement in 2011 is a case in point. Rather than turn on CNN for their reporting on the matter, an informed citizen could simply log-in to Twitter and watch the uprising through a series of live-tweets, effectively communicating the immediacy of the event without filter, without commentary, and without proper vetting.

We see clearly across great distances. But what do these ‘extensions of ourselves’ do to our local communities?

We’re engrossed in all of the wrongs of the world that we want made right, yet forget about the actual needs of an actual local community just waiting for our participation. The nearer you are to your Christian neighbor, the flaws you more easily recognize somehow become less important; love expands for the person behind the cracks, behind the facade. We simply cannot love the image of a Somali refugee/Bosnian drug addict/Syrian house church more than the incarnate neighbor who plays his music too loud on weekends.

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How can access to more information be a bad thing? Shouldn’t ignorance be the enemy? Simply put, when our eyes are turned too far outward, two things happen:

  • First, we trivialize the event because we are ultimately helpless to do anything. The Millennial usually is the poster child for this case. He feels overwhelmed with pity for the horrors of Darfur, Somalia, Boko Haram, (fill in the far away horror here). To prove his cultural sensitivity credentials, he quickly changes his Facebook pic to reflect the latest hashtag. He slaps a bumper sticker on his Subaru. He may even attend a lecture at the local university.

This does nothing. #bringbackourgirls is now on Day 960. Bumper sticker slogans seem incredibly naïve to me. I get the desire for awareness, but such awareness has transformed into our personal red badge of courage. Distant compassion is now the prideful merit badge for our social interactions: To speak about these events is to appear concerned, politically engaged, and important. Never mind if that’s actually how I am.

  • Second, we lose sight of the local. When our eyes are cast toward faraway lands, we’re more like to stub our toes. It seems like these days, we know much more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis than we do about the neighbor that literally lives 35 steps away from your front door. I’m convinced that putting down our screens will allow us to live in the present and refocus our gaze on the community we are called to serve.

The cost of being connected to a place half a world away is the impotence I feel when I am exposed to their struggle. Technology has opened up a world of pain which no doubt gives us a better view of what’s going on in the world, but if it’s not tempered, we lose the ability to see the love of neighbor we can actually effect.

I’m not saying we should prefer ignorance over knowledge. On the whole, it’s a good thing to recognize the plight of those not like us in distant lands, if nothing for the pure recognition that other people live in starkly different conditions than our relatively sheltered life here in the US. Some of us will feel a direct and absolute call to serve in those lands as missionaries, doctors, aid workers and others. I simply want to draw our collective attention to the cost of such a far-reaching gaze. Your eyes will begin to hurt if you look through binoculars for too long.aaa

It’s easy to be cruel over distance. This is one feature of the Internet world. But it’s also easier to be indifferent and helpless to the trials a million miles away.

The great miracle of the Christian message is that God did not perform his salvific work from afar. In other words, God did not declare us forgiven just by saying it out loud into the void. He didn’t reconcile himself to man by thinking good thoughts from his heavenly throne. The divine-human distance was too substantial to tolerate. Instead, he sends the Immanuel. God became us to be near to us. The unfathomable difference (distance) between God and man was collapsed in an instant when a young Jewish girl gave birth to a baby in a backwater town some 2,000 years ago.

By incarnating, God saw us face-to-face. We saw him face-to-face. On account of his desire for intimacy, he drew us closer to love. He was crucified, but did not crucify others.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.