“We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance, sweetheart. We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to find a way to convince ourselves that that will just have to . . . be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning.” ―
But the more I thought about this repeated line, the more it bothered me.
Are we all really doing our best?
So how can we go deeper in compassion and kindness, without ignoring our shortcomings?
Let me start by clarifying that I thoroughly enjoyed Anxious People and am loving Deep Kindness. Backman and Kraft both do excellent jobs of showing how we can create impactful relationships with others and how those connections help us grow. Each author acknowledges our imperfections and offers important truths in their works. I just think their messages miss out on a vital part of the whole picture. They don’t recognize the why behind our imperfections.
As Christians, we know why our best isn’t enough. People are born into sin, and because of our sinful nature, we can never be good enough on our own. No matter how hard we try in our own power, we’ll always mess up at times. We’ll always have days when we make bad choices, when we aren’t as kind as we should be, or when we fail the people we love most. The broken world around us will continue to throw challenges our way; hatred and division will never really disappear.
In short, we aren’t good enough. No one is.
Anxious People and Deep Kindness both give off the feeling that we can be perfectly decent humans if we just learn how. These books leave us with the impression that all we really need to do is help each other. For example, in Anxious People, we see a priest who can drink and swear and tell dirty jokes with the best of them, who focuses her message on caring for others. She says of God, “I don’t think we agree about everything, but I have a feeling He knows I’m doing the best I can. And I think maybe He knows I work for Him, because I try to help people.” It’s a comforting message, one that says our imperfect selves are enough.
Yet, with God, being decent people trying to live good lives isn’t enough. Serving others matters, but it doesn’t clear the path to salvation. It’s an awesome place to start; we just can’t end there.
In Colossians 3, Paul reminds his audience that as Christians, we’ve been born again through Jesus. We’re called to live new lives marked by a very real, very radical change in our actions. While before Christ, we could try to live decent lives, it’s only through Jesus’ power that we can become our true, best selves in Him. Our earthly nature is too full of harmful sins for us to be good enough on our own.
Paul describes this fallen nature in Colossians 3:5-10, telling his readers,
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (ESV)
The truth is, mankind isn’t basically good. We’re all born with a sinful nature, with as much capacity for evil as for love. Who hasn’t given in to anger, greed, or lies at some point in time?
When we come to Christ, we’re called to put those things away. Jesus came and died in our place, and He offers a new life free from the burden of our sinful nature. If we try to help people while still living complacently with all our little sins, we miss out on the freedom and fullness of life in Christ. In contrast, striving to follow Jesus and growing in His righteousness better equips us to love others well.
Christ’s righteousness leads to compassion, not judgement.
Recognizing the fullness of our imperfection as people shouldn’t make us less empathetic toward others, but rather more loving.
God is righteous and just, and yet He’s also the very definition of love. He didn’t look down on humanity and show compassion for us because we were doing our best and failing through no fault of our own. He sent His Son for us precisely because we were at our worst. Romans 5:8 says, “While we were still sinners,”–while we were in full rebellion to God–“Christ died for us.” Our sins are covered by grace we did absolutely nothing to deserve.
Knowing that should lead us to actively live out the faith we have in Christ. And what does a life marked by renewal in Jesus look like?
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (ESV)
All those virtues that Anxious People and Deep Kindness talk about? Kindness, compassion, forgiveness, love? All of these things are part of living in God’s righteousness. When we’re steeped in God’s grace, when we’re living in His Spirit, we shouldn’t become the harsh, judgmental hypocrites that the world expects Christians to be. Instead, striving for God’s righteousness should make us even more kind, more empathetic, and more forgiving than we were before we had the Lord’s Spirit to guide us. The goodness we all want to believe we have is found in the fullness of God’s grace.
As Christians, we should show empathy, not because everyone around us is doing their best, but because God still loved us at our worst. Even when it’s hard, God’s love in us helps us love others.
When we see secular society speaking truth about the need for compassion, we should celebrate that. We should support non-Christians in their efforts toward kindness, peace, and love. However, that doesn’t mean we should mimic them in rejecting or downplaying the reality of sin. We can still call out those things the Lord has called wrong while also showing love.
So where do we start? We put to death daily the evil in ourselves (because it will show up daily), and we love anyway. We strive to be more like Christ and ask Him to fill us with more of His Spirit. We remember that in the moments that our best isn’t enough, God’s love is sufficient.
We can’t change the world; we can’t even change people. We can’t even change ourselves. But God can. He’s made us new, and He calls us to share His truth with those around us, so maybe they can be made new, too.