In every nook and corner or our lives, we are encouraged to pursue the compatible. We are told to find friends who are compatible with our interests, a job that is compatible with our gifts, a church that is compatible with our theology, and a spouse who is compatible all around! There is surely something wise in this. God wants us to enjoy his creation, and common sense suggests that we enjoy life more with compatible people in compatible settings.
At the risk of sounding like the Grinch, though, we are wise to think more deeply about why we're so enthralled with compatibility, for the Bible seems to suggest that compatibility is not always what it's cracked up to be.
As I noted: On the one hand, it is truly a good and blessed thing when people "dwell in compatibility," when they share interests, opinions, likes, and dislikes. On the other hand, to spend most of one's life with those who are compatible is to spend most of one's life in front of a mirror. We like people with whom we are compatible because we like people who are like us. We may think we are loving the compatible other when we are simply feeling good about them loving us. Compatibility can become a gazing on our own reflection, as in the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus.
The careful reader will have noticed that I fractured a biblical verse above. The biblical notion is that it is a blessed thing when men and women "dwell in unity" (Ps. 133:1). This is different than dwelling in compatibility, though we often mistake the latter for the former. Unity is in some ways the foil of compatibility. The greater the incompatibility, the more blessed, the more miraculous the unity. Unity can probe the deep mystery of love in a way that mere compatibility cannot. This is one reason the Bible is replete with encouragements to dwell in unity, and says little to nothing at all about compatibility.
Another bent reason we may be attracted to compatibility (again, along with the good reasons!): We don't relish having to practice charity. The more compatible we are with another, whether spouse or friend, the less we have to transcend our typical behavior. The more we are compatible with a job or a church, the less we are asked to go beyond ourselves. In our morally challenged state, we are reluctant to practice true charity, which inevitably entails self-denial and sacrifice. Charity requires being in relationship with people we don't particularly care for, as well as staying in institutions we find uncomfortable. Our usual apologetic for avoiding distasteful relationships or institutions is to say (in the former case), "We just don't have that much in common" or (in the latter case), "It's not a good fit for me."
But a moment's thought catches us up short, especially this time of year. This is the season in which we recall the One who was deeply incompatible with our nature—holy versus sinful; infinite versus finite; loving versus self-absorbed—and yet who made himself one with our nature. In this season, we celebrate the One who joined us though he was a bad fit for this world: the Master becoming a servant, the eternal and glorious God dying a shameful death. This, to put it in modern parlance, was not a good use of his natural gifts and talents.
It was, however, an expression of his "natural interests"—namely us. When we talk about how we share an interest with another, it usually amounts to a mutual like of some activity or topic of conversation. It rarely involves a mutual interest in other people, especially people who are incompatible with us. And yet this is Jesus' main interest, or better, his obsession.
Once we recognize that the great incompatibility between God and us has been bridged, we yearn to be more compatible with the One who reconciled the deeply incompatible. To do so requires us to become more interested in what interests Jesus. That includes people who are incompatible with his values—the immoral, idolaters, rebels, and so forth. It means making friends with people who don't seem very useful to him: the severely disabled, those wasting away in convalescent hospitals, and so forth. It means joining organizations that display a mystifying combination of good works and institutional self-centeredness, love and spite, generosity and greed, unity and division—like the local church, the institution founded, run, and indwelt by Jesus.
Sharing Jesus' interests, of course, is not like turning on a light switch. It's no easy thing to become really interested in what another is interested in, and even more so with Jesus, whose interests are so perplexing! Couldn't he for once like the type of people we're most naturally compatible with? Well, of course he does. But he has this weakness for the incompatible, as well.
To love the incompatible day in and day out, to stay in an incompatible institution week in and week out—this is beyond the ability of mortals. God knows we are weak people who regularly need to fall back on our compatible networks just to catch our breath. The compatible people in our lives, then, are indeed gifts of God, not because they are an end in themselves, but because they give us respite and strength, paradoxically, to step away from them and love the incompatible.
During the Christmas season, we find ourselves looking forward to celebrating with the compatible and dreading the inevitable encounters with the incompatible—Christmas dinner with relatives we've never liked, office parties with co-workers who get on our nerves, street encounters with the homeless, among others. In other words, plenty of opportunities to get interested in those who interest Jesus.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Evangelizing Ourselves | The gospel is for Christians too. (Dec. 2, 2010)
Blessed Are the Unoffended | How can Christians communicate what we believe without being denigrating or inflammatory? (November 18, 2010)
Hopeless Prayer | What the rescue of the Chilean miners didn't teach me. (October 13, 2010)
Holy Incarnation! | It may be impossible not to "demean God" since he mixed it up with sinners. (September 30, 2010)