There are few more intimate connections than sharing the narrative of our lives with another person: our hopes, our struggles, our successes, and our failures.
I recoil at this desire. It’s easy to think that I have nothing much to say, that my personal history is of no interest to others. It’s risky to share my struggles. It’s scary to reveal my innermost doubts and dreams. Sharing my story is one way that I can connect with another person and to God. We all need to be loved for who we are.
Your Greatest Witness Requires Your Focus
Ordinary people living out extraordinary lives of faith can be the most powerful witness to God’s will for a more just world. To sense what God is doing in our midst, we just need to slow down and pay attention. The weather, politics, and even religion itself falls within the scope of our moral witness. To bear witness to God into the world is to endeavor to see rightly what God intends for creation and to join in. To become attuned to what God is up to, we must not judge but rather listen.
The church is a community of witness to God, “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” There is nothing that falls outside of God’s good creation except God. While all of creation is good, not everything that happens is right. Bearing witness requires that we be present and attentive. We must love God, self and neighbor enough to become that attentive presence.
Who are the Foolish and Weak?
Jane Dutton, a Chaplin volunteering at a breakfast ministry gets to listen to individuals who are struggling in some way. They may be unemployed, underemployed, homeless, recently out of prison, have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, and in general have a tough time. “These are the people on the margins of society. And these are some of the most loving and generous and wise people I know,” she says. “Some of these folks live without basic needs, but one week after giving someone a coat the week before, Joe arrived at breakfast with just a sweatshirt”.
- “Joe, what happened to the coat I gave you?” I asked.
- “I gave it to someone who needed it more,” he replied.
- “But now you don’t have a coat.”
- “Yeah,” he said, “but I have a place to stay.”
Dutton’s story bears witness to how Christ is present in the lives of people on the margins of society. That is God’s wisdom. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong… So that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 27, 29).
Paul was pointing his finger at us. We the readers and bystanders, who scratch our heads in disbelief that Joe would give away his only coat. We are the ones shamed by our foolish and weak presumptions about what God is up to in the world. We are the ones who presume to know what is foolish or weak —and in the process of judging, we expose our own lack of wisdom even as we boast otherwise. Bearing witness expands our accountability to strangers who may not share our faith at all. Missionally, we must build relationships not just with fellow Christians but to all persons. Focused in the present, the practice of attentive presence attunes us to their needs.
Let our presence in the lives of others create moments for the glory of God to show up.
Your Spirit Being Present for Their Spirit
Bearing witness is being present and attentive to the truth of another’s experiences. It is more than just being a good listener, though. It involves the moral activity of empathy. Sometimes these experiences are filled with joy; sometimes they are traumatic remembrances.
It is especially difficult to be present for someone who is reliving a trauma. yet this situation is when we are needed most. We should, however, never feel compelled to bear witness to someone else’s trauma to our own detriment. Caring for your own emotional and spiritual needs is necessary to enable you to be present for others. Not all occasions for attentive presence are your responsibility or calling.
God’s Love Through You to Others
God not only created but also redeemed humanity. While the Holy Spirit acts prior to our awareness through prevenient or anticipatory grace, the Spirit also enables us to respond. We must cooperate with God. God first bestowed our worth by loving us, we respond to God through repentance and a desire to love in return. (An example of this desire is expressed in the post Longing to Reciprocate Gods Astonishing Love) Convicted of the need for God in our lives, we then entered into renewed relationship with God. This is the God-enabled moment of justification and new birth.
A parallel event occurs in the moral witness of the church, as we bear witness through attentive presence. Convicted of the need to love each neighbor, we then entered into a renewed relationship with those around us. The neighbor becomes a vessel of God’s grace as we pay attention to their stories and their suffering. Human empathy is the doorway to participation in divine love.
Empathy for our neighbors is the consequence to our humility before God. Empathy is being able to see ourselves in another person. Empathy is the ability to imagine what it would be like to walk in their footsteps. Empathy is so important in the life of faith that Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount with this exhortation: “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7: 12 ).
We may have to look hard to see the image of God in each person. Yet it is there, even if people have not entered into their potential – the likeness of God.
When we combine the recognition of bestowed worth from God and the empathy for our neighbor, we are drawn to bear witness to the most vulnerable persons in our community and to ensure that they have basic goods for survival. By loving our neighbors, we love Christ himself. “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 40).
We develop a strong moral commitment to vulnerable populations and persons, those whom we are most likely to overlook when seeking Christ among us. We are commanded to give special attention to them. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” (Exodus 22: 21- 22) We see here that within the very first laws God gave the Israelites, were protections for the alien, widow, and orphan. God is “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5a). The alien – also translated as immigrant or stranger – is particularly vulnerable in a legal system that might render his existence “illegal.” And that is not all, God not only favors the widow, orphan, and alien, God especially sides with the poor.
Thus, for us to love God and neighbor, we need to consider our neighbor’s need for life-sustaining supplies. Because injustice is not equally distributed, the most vulnerable of society are the ones most likely to be denied rights and basic goods. Poverty most often has systemic causes, and therefore we do not hold poor people morally responsible for their economic state. The provision of basic needs should not be dependent on the ability of the poor to fend for themselves. We all have responsibility to provide for basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care.
Attentive presence with the poor raises our awareness of patterns of injustice. When we pay attention to the needs of many neighbors, we become aware of the ways in which different forms of oppression have kept us segregated, divided, or polarized.
God’s redemptive activity requires us to practice empathy. God’s commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. We must identify with our neighbor in order to love our neighbor. This is why we must strive to understand their struggles from their point of view.
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Thus says the Lord of hosts render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zachariah 7: 9—10)
God loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10: 18)
Bearing Witness to the Kin-dom by Darryl W. Stephens