A few months ago I stood outside a patient’s room, researching her case history before going in to see her. As I read through one consulting physician’s analysis, the following paragraph stood out to me. It was a uniquely poignant, almost poetic in its clarifying account of this patient’s condition.
“I do not feel that any medication and/or imaging study will either ameliorate her discomfort or reveal its source. You cannot image the soul. Her soul has been damaged by the abuse [years of childhood abuse] that she suffered and in its healing has left a scar from which emanates her physical discomfort.”
As I finished reading this, and the rest of the woman’s history, my heart began to ache with compassion. During my evaluation I found myself wishing that was something I could do to help her, some way for me to fix that broken part of her soul. Once finished, and finding that my normal exiting platitudes didn’t feel genuine or appropriate, I left her room feeling extremely weighed down.
A few hours later I was reviewing another medical chart before entering my patient’s room. While glancing through the consultations of multiple physicians I didn’t come across any sympathetic observations. Rather, I found a very stark recital of this woman’s medical history. The doctors’ all noted her frequent admissions due to an ongoing abuse of illegal narcotics and excessive alcohol. There was painfully little in the way of social support, maybe a state case worker or a distant relative. Taken all together, the physicians concluded that her prognosis for a functional recovery was slim. I sighed before entering. I’d seen many patient’s like this, as has anyone working in the medical field, and have always found it difficult to project an attitude of benevolence during my evaluation.
Two cases, one an abuser, and one the abused. One elicited from me an immediate and almost visceral sense of compassion. The other, a subtle and self-righteous sense of condemnation.
Later that evening I began to ponder these two women. I thought about their lives. I thought about my responses to each of them. And I realized, sadly, that I had been so very much NOT like Christ in my response to that second patient.
The truth is, I don’t fully grasp the concept of slavery to sin. Like many saved at an early age, I cannot remember a time when my heart was vacant of God. From the age of four, the Holy Spirit has been my constant companion; prompting me to seek God, and convicting me when I sought something other than God (John 14:6). I can never underestimate the precious gift of an early salvation.
However, having never experienced the emptiness of a life without God, I struggle to see the people around me as slaves to a horrible master (Rom 6:14). I forget that without the grace of Christ every person, and not just those I would (self-righteously) label as dissolute, is broken. They are broken by their own sin and they are living in physical world which groans under the weight of sin’s effects (Rom 8:21a). They are helpless and hurting. They try to live in a way that will bring them happiness and contentment (ranging from drugs and alcohol to a house behind a white picket fence), never realizing that the end of all those attempts is always death. Put into context, Romans 6:23 takes on a richer meaning to me.
20For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I enjoy that free gift of God. I have been liberated by his grace and set on a path that leads only to an eternity spent with him.
So coming back to those two patients. Here were two women, both physically and mentally hurting but for very different reasons. One hurting because of the sinful choices of another person, the other hurting because of the sinful choices she herself made. Should my compassion extend to one and not the other? When Jesus ministered here on earth he ministered to all people—extending his compassion to misguided fishermen, thieving tax collectors, perfectionistic women, adulterous women, chronically ill women, searching Pharisees, and hungry crowds. He did not wait for those people to start making “good life choices” before showing grace and mercy (ie. the woman at the well), rather, he reached into their broken and messy lives and extended his love. The apostle Matthew captures this tender concern when he wrote “And when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36).
As I interact with people, do I see them as harassed by sin and helpless to fix themselves, or do I judge their feeble attempts and determine that they might actually deserve the hurt that they are experiencing? Wendy Alsup write succinctly,
“God forbid I accept the grace God has lavished on me that freed me from my chains of slavery, yet withhold it from the next person because they seem so undeserving of grace and deserving of harshness. But for the lavish grace of God, there go I. That is the gospel.”
I pray that my compassion for the lost would extend past their sinful choices and would touch their broken hearts. As Colossians 3:12 admonishes, we must “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” We must show them Jesus is the answer to that awful struggle for peace and contentment. He is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
(As a disclaimer: I want to let everyone know that I no longer remember either patient’s name or anything more detailed about their medical history than what I wrote down in this post. I only kept the one’s doctor’s quote as a way to remind myself of the damage that abuse can do to a person’s soul. I was intentionally vague about when this took place and where I was working (since I move between three hospitals). Just wanted to clear that up for anyone concerned about patient privacy : )
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