We had the pleasure of having Keith Warrington teaching us in church this weekend. One of the questions he asked was “how does the bible teach us about God” and passed around bunches of postcards we could use as illustrations. I picked:
As Keith showed the card around the room there were groans, intakes of breath, groans and exclamations of “I feel sick”.
A simple photo looking down on New York rooftops would not have done that. But because there were people sitting out on the girder high above the streets below, we put ourselves in their place and felt the deep emotional response, what we felt about being in their situation ourselves.* It isn’t just a response in our heads. This reaction was signalled by our brain down through our body along the vagus nerve until we felt the reaction in our very guts.
That is why we associate intense emotions like being in love with our heart. You heart goes pitter-pat, skips a beat (there is medicine for that now), you suffer heart ache. Deeper emotions can be felt as butterflies in your stomach, being love sick, having your stomach in knots. These aren’t just metaphors (though the butterflies aren’t real), your brain is using your whole body as a sounding board to express your emotions. If the emotional turmoil is strong enough you can end up having to rush to the loo.
With empathy and compassion we feel the same responses, only for other people’s suffering. We react the way we’d feel about being in that situation ourselves. This was how the Good Samaritan reacted to the man he found beaten up and dying on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The Levite and the priest had more important things to do and just passed by, not the Samaritan. But he didn’t just think, “that’s terrible I must do something”. He felt the compassion for the man deep down in his guts. That is what the Greek means, it’s the verb splagchnizomai from splagchnon intestines. This is what loving neighbour means. Jesus told the parable to illustrate loving our neighbour and who qualifies as neighbour Luke 10:25-37. This is the compassion and empathy we are called to throughout the bible. Exodus 23:9 Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Deut 10:19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Quotes from the NIV) The very phrase ‘love you neighbour as yourself’ calls us to put ourselves in the other person’s position and feel things from another persons perspective.
This kind of love should grow in our lives as a fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit.* It is one of God’s highest priorities, if not the highest priority, as he begins to transform our lives into the image of Jesus Christ. Paul lists love first when tells us the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22,23. It is at the end of his list in Colossians but described as ‘above all’. Col 3:14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
How does this help us know God better? As we learn more about love we begin to understand the love God has for us, and for others. It resonates more deeply with us when we read about the deep compassion Jesus had for people in the Gospels, especially the outcasts and marginalised. But more than that, what we read about God and about Jesus simply makes more sense as we begin to understand it through eyes of love.
I like to think of empathy as a superpower 🙂 Unlike invisibility or bending space and time, it has the advantage of being real. But a real superpower comes with limitations. It isn’t mind reading. We don’t feel a disturbance in the Force as if millions of voices are silenced. We are simply imagining how we would feel in someone else’s situation. It is often pretty accurate, or at least enough to tell us the other person is in desperate need. But if you look at those men sitting on the girder having lunch, they aren’t bothered by it at all. They don’t feel the way we would about such a precarious perch. Which is why, when we have the opportunity, instead of simply rushing in with all our good intentions, we should listen to people too. Often that is the thing they need most.
So just how powerful is this ‘superpower’ of ours? The Good Samaritan’s empathy saved a life. Compassion can pull someone out of the depths of despair or transform a whole society. But for our compassion to move and change others, it has to move and change us first. His compassion moved the Samaritan to kneel down and begin cleaning and binding the man’s wounds…
updated June 6 2016
*We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking because love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that this kind of compassion is limited to Christians. Remember Jesus used the example of a Samaritan, whom the Jews would have regarded as heretics, to show what compassion and loving our neighbour means.