Empathy, Experience, and the Gospel

Greater empathy: not at the expense of orthodoxy but perhaps a better way to "deploy our orthodoxy."

For a society that is so individualistic, we’re driven by a herd mentality. We may even be wired that way. Just watch little kids copy each other’s behavior. The herd’s values vary from one social group to another, but you quickly learn what is accepted/expected and what is not. Given this pressure, it’s hard being the outsider. At best, you are ignored. At worst, you are shamed or bullied for not fitting in. So to avoid the shame, you learn to downplay disagreements. You learn to downplay any individuality because it is safer to not be noticed especially when being noticed can get you in trouble. I think we’ve all experienced this to one degree or the other, and we bring this baggage to the church.

 

To begin, please read this post – Presxit: The Church of the Normal. This is so good that I don’t want to take away from it by trying to paraphrase what the author wrote so well. However in case you didn’t click the link, in a nutshell he is calling the church to greater empathy. Not at the expense of orthodoxy but perhaps a better way to “deploy our orthodoxy.”

If every presbytery asked every ministerial candidate what it means to love the people of God and how that would play out in their ministry, and if every pastor and every session committed themselves to creating a culture of nurturing, accepting, and accommodating diversity in their congregation, then it would open the way for truer understanding of ourselves and others by leading us behind the generalities of norms and expectations. It would lead us to encounter individuals on their own terms, as they’d have themselves be known. Creating such a culture starts with active empathizing, and it starts with the people you have. You can’t wait until a person of color or a neuro-diverse person comes to your church to start talking about ways to be inclusive and respectful of difference.

I’ve been thinking about disagreement and difference as it relates to shame, vulnerability, and empathy. These topics are discussed in a couple books I’m reading: Unashamed, which is from a Christian perspective, and Daring Greatly, which is not. Our small group also had a very healthy discussion of how we broach our differences in the church, so many ideas have been brewing in the pot. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I wanted to riff off of the above post and get my thoughts outside of my head for further pondering.

For a society that is so individualistic, we’re driven by a herd mentality. We may even be wired that way. Just watch little kids copy each other’s behavior. The herd’s values vary from one social group to another, but you quickly learn what is accepted/expected and what is not. Given this pressure, it’s hard being the outsider. At best, you are ignored. At worst, you are shamed or bullied for not fitting in. So to avoid the shame, you learn to downplay disagreements. You learn to downplay any individuality because it is safer to not be noticed especially when being noticed can get you in trouble. I think we’ve all experienced this to one degree or the other, and we bring this baggage to the church.

Of all the places in the world, the household of faith is the one where we should be accepted. It goes without saying that I am not talking about condoning sin. We affirm our unity in the gospel because all believers are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. At the same time, it should be obvious that gospel unity is not assimilation into the Borg. We do not lose our uniqueness when we become Christians, but the herd mentality still has a way of infiltrating the church. Maybe it makes us feel safer and affirmed when we assume everyone is like us. Maybe it reveals the superficial level at which we know one another. Thus it can be awkward when we find out how different we really are. Then the learned behavior of conforming to what we perceive as the norm kicks in, and we adjust. We downplay opinions to minimize differences and edit what we say for the audience. I know because I’ve done this with believers and not just once. But how many worthwhile discussions get nipped in the bud? How many opportunities to go deeper than the surface are missed because we don’t want to take the risk? What would it be like to openly acknowledge our diversity and not be afraid to talk about it?

It’s been a few days when I first started this post. The more I let it percolate, I realized that empathy is more complex than “all you insiders need to be nicer to us outsiders.” While it is true we should be kinder to one another, the issue goes deeper. Also we can find ourselves insiders and outsiders depending on the circumstances. So rather than admonishing you on how to grow in empathy, I am addressing myself because I have much to learn. So without further ado:

– Bring it to the light. If I feel slighted or misunderstood, I need to say something. If it is my imagination, then the air can be cleared. If there is misunderstanding, this opens the door for better communication. If it is deliberate, it still needs to be brought to the light so there can be opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. This is not without risk.

– Respect people’s experiences. The gospel is not tailored to someone’s experience, but experience is the crucible where faith is tried and applied.

– Realize that my experience is only that – my experience. Neither is it normative. Your experience does not invalidate mine and vice versa. But no human being, apart from Jesus, has the final word on mankind across time and culture. Therefore, just because I have not seen or undergone something first hand does not mean it does not exist. Columbus proved that a long time ago.

– When I am tempted to compare myself or my circumstances to others, remember what Jesus said to Peter – “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:22.

– Respect people as individuals and not as just a member of a group. People may be sick of my sharing this quote from Dorothy Sayers, but this is crucial to our better understanding of one another: “What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” This is nothing less than acknowledging that we are made in the image of God, and as an infinite Creator, He did not need cookie cutters. God is also better than an insurance carrier. He does not need statistical categories to keep track of us or determine His dealings with us. He knows us by name.

– Where I want conformity beyond the gospel may reveal a potential idol. The “gospel plus” is never a good idea.

– The gospel is not a “get out of empathy” or “get out of difficult discussions” card. The gospel is what makes this possible. I can only empathize if my heart has been changed. I can only try to understand someone who is different from me if my mind is renewed. I can only love the brethren and the lost because He loved me first. Being kind to one another and forgiving one another as Christ forgave me is gospel rubber meeting community road. Do I believe that Christ has broken down the wall of partition and made us one body with one faith, one Lord, and one Spirit? If so, surely the gospel can stand the test. Then why don’t I take the risk and see what God will do?

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the Ordinary. This article appeared at her blog and is used with permission.



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