Leaving Salem

Leaving Salem

Idiot Compassion

Zen Buddhists use a descriptive phrase that we who are Christian should adopt into our own vocabulary. The phrase is “Idiot’s Compassion.” This term was first used by Chogyam Trungpa, a provocative and controversial Tibetan who helped bring Buddhism to the West in the 1970s. According to Trungpa and others, Idiot’s Compassion is this intense desire to do good; but this benevolent desire blinds a person to what is actually right. Idiot’s Compassion is convinced it is being kind. In reality, it is misguided.


The classic example of such behavior is the relationship between the addict and the enabler. Suppose an alcoholic friend comes to you in much suffering. Her body is racked by convulsions and tremors. She is financially used up. She is tormented by her disease. She begs you for a drink. You are persuaded to offer her a drink – just one drink – to alleviate her immediate pain. You do this, in your own mind, out of mercy. Yet, this act is far from merciful. In providing the addict another drink, another high, or another hit, you have actually given her more of the poison that will ultimately take her life. This is not mercy; it is foolhardy. It is Idiot’s Compassion.

In his book, Just Like Jesus, Max Lucado tells the story of a lighthouse keeper who worked on a rocky stretch of coastline. The keeper received oil only once a month to keep his light burning. But not being far from a village, he had frequent guests. One night a woman needed oil to keep her family warm. Another night a man needed oil for his lamp. Still another need oil to lubricate the wheels on his wagon. These were all legitimate requests and the man gave to everyone who asked. Toward the end of the month he ran out of oil and the lighthouse went dark, resulting in several large boats crashing into the rocks. Shipping vessels were destroyed. Many lives were lost. The lighthouse keeper, so generous and well-intended with his neighbors, was held responsible for these losses, including the deaths. The authorities rebuked him saying, “You were given the oil for one reason – to keep the light burning.”


We might say that it was Idiot’s Compassion that led this man to do the good but lesser things with his resources. These good things ultimately harmed those around him. It is this foolish chasing after lesser things that often causes us so much misery. In our churches, our worship, our religious service organizations, how we live out life as individuals and within our families: We are pretty darn good at “doing stuff” in service to others, for a cause, or for faith.

We can organize, recruit volunteers, draft strategic plans, debate the best use of our dollars, and construct elaborate structures. But what if we have propped up our ladder against the wrong wall? What if when we climb to the last rung, all of our activity has been Idiot’s Compassion? What if doing stuff for others – even doing stuff for Jesus as we Christians claim – isn’t the point at all? What if, in the end, Jesus doesn’t care very much at all about our frantic behavior on his behalf?


Is it possible to expend so much energy on our activities that we have forgotten the Christ we actually serve? In all of our efforts to honor Jesus, do we end up ignoring him? All of our frantic commotion, is it nothing more than an effort to sedate our own discontentment? Our grabbing after many things is symptomatic of our lack of having the one thing: We will never be satisfied – never – until we learn to be still. For Jesus asks us not for all we can do for him – for Idiot’s Compassion. He asks us for the one thing – ourselves.

“Come,” he says, “take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for you will find rest for your soul.” So much of our hurried and frantic goings-on, isn’t “faith” or “ministry” or “worship.” It is just busyness with a religious label. May we learn to draw into our lungs the fresh air of the presence of Christ, and abandon the hustle and bustle of lesser things. In short, let us enjoy and extend the compassion of Christ, not our own brand of energetic idiocy.

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