In the novel, Les Miserables, the bishop of Digne is faced with the decision of how to treat men who were despised in the community because of their past behavior. Those of you familiar with the story will likely remember the mercy and empathy he demonstrated to the main character and former convict, Jean Valjean, even after he has betrayed the trust of the bishop and tried to steal many of his precious things. It is a powerful moment and one that changes the course of the whole story. It offers a great visual of what the Savior would have done in the same situation — an example of the Love of the Good Shepherd.
We get a glimpse into our Heavenly Father’s character as we recognize the immense compassion He has for sinners and appreciate the distinction He makes between sin and those who sin. This glimpse helps us have a more “correct [understanding of] his character, perfections, and attributes” and is foundational to exercising faith in Him and in His Son, Jesus Christ. The Savior’s compassion in the face of our imperfections draws us toward Him and motivates us in our repeated struggles to repent and emulate Him. As we become more like Him, we learn to treat others as He does, regardless of any outward characteristic or behavior.” Dale G. Renlund
Deployed to Afghanistan
This part of the story from Les Mis reminds me of an experience I had about nine years ago when I was called to fill a remote assignment in Afghanistan.
While I knew it was going to be very difficult to leave my family for eight months, part of me felt excited to be a part of what was happening over there. There is a long military tradition in my family. I have relatives who have fought in just about every war going back to the American Revolution. As a dentist, I knew I wasn’t going to be engaging in combat, but I wanted to be there to support our troops who were there fighting for other’s freedom.
When I received my orders, I discovered that my assignment was to be a part of a special medical team. I was NOT going over to treat our troops but to provide dental care to our enemies who had been captured and held in military-run prison.
I had a whole lot of mixed feelings. Could I do this? These were terrorists! Members of Al Qaida and the Taliban who had done horrific things. They had caused incredible suffering among the families of my fellow soldiers who were killed in action. Even worse was the horrible oppression and murders to their own countrymen.
I thought of the pain they caused in the hearts of children who would not see their father or mother again, parents who lost a son or daughter, or spouses who would not get to welcome home the love of their life. And these men would now be coming to me and asking me to heal their tooth pain which seemed so insignificant in comparison.
Then the words of the Sermon on the Mount came to my mind:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44)
Never in my life could I have imagined I would face such a literal test of whether or not I could follow this command from the Lord.
My assignment proved to be a very challenging one, not so much the dentistry side of it, but the mental and emotional side of it. Many were very appreciative of the service we offered. For those, it was much easier to have compassion and charity. There were also many who, after receiving all this free treatment, gained this sense of entitlement. They would get upset when you wouldn’t give them all that they wanted.
Throughout my time there, I was called names; I was told to “get out of Afghanistan!” I was threatened to have horrible things done to me. I’m sure some of them would have spit in my face had they not been so intrigued by my little dental suction tip (something they had never seen before). I’m sure the two guards standing by, and the drill in my hand was also a deterrent.
The Sermon on the mount also says:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
For a while, I thought I might be accused of following the old law of “tooth for a tooth” because I pulled many a tooth from my enemies mouths (I promise it was all done for their benefit and to their great relief).
Something I struggled with almost every day the first few months was the question, “Why are we taking such good care of these prisoners? They don’t deserve this! What have they done to deserve this? If the roles were reversed, they would have lined us up and beheaded us! How can they be so rude when we are here to serve them? The bitterness started to set in and perhaps some feelings of hatred as well.
I Remember One Sunday
I walked into our dusty little makeshift chapel and took a seat on the front row. Something remarkable happened. As we started to sing the sacrament hymn – “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” the words seemed to be stuck in my throat. I became so emotional I couldn’t seem to get them out.
Lord, I Would Follow Thee
Savior, may I learn to love thee, Walk the path that thou hast shown,
Pause to help and lift another, Finding strength beyond my own.
Savior, may I learn to love thee—Lord, I would follow thee.
Who am I to judge another When I walk imperfectly?
In the quiet heart is hidden Sorrow that the eye can’t see.
Who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee
I would be my brother’s keeper; I would learn the healer’s art.
To the wounded and the weary, I would show a gentle heart.
I would be my brother’s keeper— Lord, I would follow thee
Savior, may I love my brother As I know thou lovest me,
Find in thee my strength, my beacon, For thy servant I would be.
Savior, may I love my brother— Lord, I would follow thee
Then Heavenly Father spoke to my mind:
Merrill, the men you are serving are my sons, and they are your brothers. They have been brought up under very different circumstances than you. They were not raised in a home with the knowledge of the gospel. You have no idea what they have been through and what influences they have had in their lives. Merrill, I will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you, it is required to forgive all men.¹ Remember the example of my Son.
The Good Shepherd and His Perfect Example
Although I do not feel as though I passed my test in Afghanistan, I gained more respect and admiration for the Good Shepherds love of all men. I am in awe at how He responded to those who called him names, cast him out, spit in his face.
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…. Wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.²
When he finally did open his mouth what did he say? “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I can’t say it was easy to love these enemies, but it certainly changed my outlook and led to more spiritual experiences throughout my deployment.
In our lifelong quest to follow Jesus Christ, His example of kindness to those who sin is particularly instructive. We, who are sinners, must, like the Savior, reach out to others with compassion and love. Our role is also to help and bless, lift and edify, and replace fear and despair with hope and joy.” –Dale G. Renlund
We All Sin
It is not likely we’d face mortal enemies with such drastically different ideology the way I did in Afghanistan, but we are surrounded by people who sin or who do things in which we disagree. We must avoid the tendency to be self-righteous and judgmental. We ALL sin! None of us deserve the compassionate and loving treatment our Savior gives us. And no matter how much pain we have experienced while going through the repentance process, it pales in comparison to the pain suffered by our Savior in Gethsemane and on the cross.
We do face spiritual enemies daily. Satan and his followers, try to tempt us to put on the “natural man” and become an enemy to God. They want us to forget who we are. To look down upon others and persecute them in the form of ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion, isolation, hatred or bigotry.
We must realize we have no idea what others have gone through or what they are currently going through. We don’t know what kind of influences they have had in their lives or what thoughts and feelings they have. It is NOT our responsibility nor is it our right to judge others. It is only our responsibility to love and serve them.
Joy and Love
The whole purpose of this life is to have joy. Joy comes from understanding and feeling God’s love for you. It becomes easier to recognize as we keep His commandments. His two greatest commandments are to love Him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not keep His commandments so He will love us more. He already loves all of his children with a perfect love. We keep His commandments to show our love for Him, and in doing so, we can feel His love more in our lives.
Notice the second command is to love our neighbor and ourselves, at least it implies we love ourselves. Some of the harshest judgments we make are on ourselves as we give in to the temptation to compare ourselves to others in a self-deprecating way. You may have found yourselves often using the phrase, “I am not.” I am not smart, or successful, or popular, or pretty, or patient, or humble, or faithful, or (fill in the blank) like so and so is. The more we repeat those phrases, the more easily we are led to sorrow and depression.
We must remember who we are as divine spirit sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. We have his spiritual DNA and thus have the potential to become like Him. He is the “Great I Am.” He is NOT the “Great I Am Not.” We are his greatest and most valuable creations. What we ARE is infinitely more important than what we are not. We should focus on what we are, the offspring of God.
Back to the Fold of the Good Shepherd
Jesus Christ is our Our Good Shepherd and will go any distance necessary to bring us back into His fold.
The 23rd Psalm is my favorite scripture and became very powerful to me during my deployment. The first part was very familiar but the last couple verses really resonated with me while I was there.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
This is the part that stood out:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
There I was on an isolated airbase in Afghanistan. In the “presence of mine enemies.” As I looked up from my hymnbook, I realized there was a table set before me, a clean white cloth that covered the emblems of the sacrament. A table prepared for me. I knew I could be forgiven of my sins against my brothers. Goodness and mercy had followed me all the way to that far off land. I began to feel my “cup” run over with the love of our Savior — Our Good Shepherd.