Many of us are familiar with the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Regardless of who said it, it is a clear reminder that all of us are capable of about anything under the right circumstances. God’s grace surely spares us from the bad choices of those we easily condemn, not our moral superiority. Our response, then, should be one of compassion, not self-righteous indignation.
“Self-righteous” can be defined as “filled with or showing a conviction of being morally superior, or more righteous than others; smugly virtuous.” The emphasis is not on “virtuous, but “smugly.”
Indignation means “resentment” or “outrage.” It is a powerfully negative emotional word. Behind “self-righteous indignation” is the belief that the offensive behavior of another would be impossible for us because we are above such behavior.
Tonight I watched a program about the botched execution of a man in Arizona who was injected with some experimental drugs that left him gasping and choking for almost two hours. Some were gleeful about how much he suffered because he had inflicted so much suffering on his victims. I sat there feeling compassion for his victims, the pathetic killer himself, those who watched his slow death, those who were part of carrying it out and a society that still believes that capital punishment is a good idea.
Call me naive, or whatever demeaning word you can come up with, but when I hear or read about drug addicts, sexual abusers, murderers and the like, I feel compassion.
“Compassion” means “to suffer with.” I certainly do not condone their behaviors or excuse them from the punishment they bring upon themselves (or is inflicted upon them by others), but I do suffer with them. I often wonder why I was spared the experiences they have had that led them to do what they did.
Yes, there but for the grace of God go I.
I may be ridiculed for such compassion, even hated by those who do not share it, but I am happy about the fact that I can still feel compassion in the face of so many human disasters — that I am not yet numbed, jaded and desensitized by so much of it in the news.
I have always cringed when I am confronted with the words of Jesus:
“Do not judge and you will not be judged.” And, “The measure you use to measure others will be used to measure you.”
Maybe Charles L. Allen said it best: “The hardest people to reach with the love of God are not the bad people. They know they are bad. They have no defense. The hardest ones to win for God are the self-righteous people.”
We all have a little of the temple Pharisee in us who likes to pray, “O God, I thank you God that I am not like the rest of humanity!”
Father J. Ronald Knott