Have you ever had an interaction with someone that left you speechless? It goes something like this:
“I just don’t think that’s right.”
“Are you serious? Wow… Aren’t you supposed to be Christian? Show some empathy or compassion, isn’t that what Jesus would do!?”
Pick the topic – abortion, eternal life, race, identity and a myriad of others. This is often how some of those conversations end. The highest moral ground goes to the one that is most empathetic to the plight of a perceived minority. You might leave such a conversation dumbfounded and, if you are anything like I was, you might wonder if you really were one of those things. After all, as a Christian we are supposed to love people, and if we are told we are not only unloving but hateful we must take those words to heart right? Maybe I do need to compromise on what I consider sin issues, after all, I cannot be unloving and call myself a Christian, especially a pastor! I want to be able to have honest and meaningful conversations, but I cannot do so if I am also a bigot!
One of the issues with interacting honestly is that much of our culture operates with assumptions that are simply untrue. In short, we have been indoctrinated. Indoctrination seems to be a dirty word but perhaps being indoctrinated with the truth is simply education. For instance, we do not tell our children the physics behind not touching the hot stove, but we tell them not to do it. It is bad for them. They must not question it, or they will get hurt. Indoctrination, in many ways, sets the foundation for how we think about a myriad of issues. If our assumptions of justice are off for example, then our assessment of supposed injustice will be off as well. We must know what true justice is. Someone needs to tell us.
One of the ways the evangelical church has struggled in this arena is by miss-diagnosing how we have been indoctrinated. Indoctrination is not about gender fluidity, or race issues, or masks or anything of that nature. Those things are symptoms, but they are not the disease. Treating those surface level problems without addressing the core issue is like applying aloe vera to a sunburn and hoping that our melanoma will go away. It might sooth some of the surface issues, but it does not address the underlying problem.
So, with what have we been indoctrinated? Compassion and empathy. What is wrong with compassion and empathy? Nothing!
In fact, these two things are imperative virtues to instill for Christianity to thrive. We need compassion and empathy so we can love the world. It is not simply nice. It is necessary!
But indoctrination is bad! Is it?
Maybe it is only bad when the truth is compromised. Think of the hot stove example, if we indoctrinate our kids with the idea that the hot stove is good to touch, that is bad, if we indoctrinate them with the foundational truth that it is hurtful to touch, that is good, we can build on that truth for future use and success in life. I like to think of it this way: when the foundation is set on faulty assumptions of reality then education becomes indoctrination but when the assumptions are based on what is really real supposed indoctrination becomes education.
The question is, has the truth about compassion and empathy been compromised? Are we operating under an educated understanding of empathy or an indoctrinated understanding of it?
Absolutely it has been compromised, and we have barely even noticed it.
I recently realized this after having a conversation about compassion with a friend of mine. He mentioned to me that we should be compassionate with people who believe differently than us. I agreed. Problem was, we had differing views of compassion. In his view, compassion was about condoning or supporting so that a person could feel seen, understood, and heard. In my view, compassion was about lovingly sharing the truth so that a person can know what is really real and can build a meaningful life on that foundation. As a Christian I believe the only way to have a truly meaningful life is through the foundation of reality and truth. On the other hand, his view would assume a person can find fulfillment in their own definition of truth and reality. Both of our perspectives cannot be correct. One of us is wrong.
The biblical view of compassion is love and truth. We cannot be compassionate or empathetic without love, obviously, but we also cannot be compassionate without truth. We all inherently know this, except for in the areas we have been trained to not know this.
Suppose someone you know has cancer, but she refuses to believe she has cancer. What is the compassionate thing to do? Should you support her delusion so as not to cause her emotional hurt or should you confront that delusion because you love her and want her to get treatment and fight to live?
The Christian story is all about truth.
This is where we must start the discussion. If compassion and empathy must rely on the truth to be virtuous and effective (and I believe they do) then we must find out what the truth is. The danger for the Christian is that he/she might fall prey to the world’s definition of truth rather than God’s to show empathy to those in pain. How ought a Christian think of these polarizing issues then?
Well, let us go back to the beginning.
Why did humanity fall? Was it by eating the fruit? Satan’s temptation in Genesis 3 is less about the fruit and more about Adam and Eve’s knowledge of, and adherence to, the truth.
The serpent approaches the innocence of Eve and starts with a question, “Did God really say?” The world changes after the serpent asks that question. For the first time in their lives Adam and Eve had to confront doubt about what God really said. And ever since then humanity has been dealing with the same three words being whispered in our ears. Fast forward thousands of years and we find Jesus still confronting this same question.
Why did Jesus come into the world?
Look at what Jesus said in John 18:37. Jesus is still addressing the truth claims of the serpent thousands of years later! Pilate’s flippant response is like our culture’s. Meh, “What is truth?”
So… what is truth?
Is it following your heart? Jeremiah 17:9 seems to indicate this is not a good option and Proverbs 4:23 indicates that our heart is easily corruptible and calls us to guard it. Verses 20-22 of the same chapter indicate that we guard our hearts by listening to wisdom.
How do we gain wisdom then? Now we are asking the right question.
In Jesus’ prayer right before he goes to die on the cross, he says “Sanctify them (his followers) by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Who then, is the arbiter of truth?
God and His word. What is God’s word? The Bible? Sure, but it is deeper than that. For that we look at John 1:1-5.
God’s word is truth, the word is God, Jesus testifies to the truth, and it all comes together in John 14:6 when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The truth, then, is not merely a concept, but a person. Specifically, the person of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus testifies about himself! And if Jesus is the Truth and the Word, then Jesus’ authority is all over the pages of scripture.
As Christians, we are believers in the truth (Jesus Christ) and in the word of God (Jesus Christ) and believe that it is this truth (Jesus Christ) that can and will set the world free (John 8:32) and thus, it is only within the truth that we can extend real compassion and empathy into such an emotionally and politically charged environment. There is a deception in our day that compassion and empathy cannot upset the recipient. This, again, relies on a faulty understanding of compassion and empathy. The truth is oftentimes difficult to hear, but it is necessary, like the cancer patient that is convinced she does not have cancer.
Any conversation then, about any topic, must first be brought to bear concerning the pages of scripture. The question that Jesus asked Peter in Luke 9:20 looms large in the heart of each conversation, “Who do you say I am?”
What do you do with Jesus?
If you are a believer in Jesus as the Son of the living God then you should, by default, be a believer in the truth and if the truth is also the word of God then scripture ought to be your basis for judging reality. In other words, each conversation must start with a proper understanding of scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). Empathy then, must always be built on the foundation of the words of God.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a pastor friend of mine and he said something that I found to be incredibly insightful in its simplicity and truth. The two greatest commandments are Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:38-40). IN THAT ORDER – when we get those two out of order (loving our neighbor has our self and then loving God) we make the foundation of our worldview empathy, and we use that to assess what is true. Instead we ought to start with truth and use truth to move to empathy. It will not always be received, but it will always be true compassion and empathy. This is partly why Jesus told his disciples not to be surprised if the world hated them (John 15:18).
J.T. English says this in his book Deep Discipleship, “Disciples who are in community but are not learning run the risk of loving their neighbor but not God.”
Thus, to extend proper compassion, we must first understand and hold fast to the truth! However, we must not extend the truth without love either (Ephesians 4:15). Just as with the cancer patient, there is a tactful way in which we must handle the truth so we can be winsome as believers in Christ. After all, becoming all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) is also the mark of compassionate truth in scripture.
There is a necessary tension between embracing hostility and walking the line of winsome empathy and compassion. Both are grounded in the truth, but the truth without love seeks hostility while the truth coupled with love simply receives hostility. I think of the words of Paul to the Romans in this instance. We ought to be people that, so long as it depends on us, live at peace with one another (Romans 12:18).
There is a line of delineation between someone being offended only because they have been presented with objective reality and someone being offended because they have been met with hostility. For instance, in your effort to convince your friend that she does, indeed have cancer, you can either shout at her for her idiocy and delusion or you can lovingly explain to her how her life can be saved. Her reaction may seem similar in both circumstances, but in one instance your disposition can be at least partially blamed, while in the other she is simply reacting to the truth she refuses to embrace.
We can either learn to embrace the visceral reaction of those that will disagree with us on empathy and compassion because we are hostile, or we can embrace the visceral reaction because we have loved them.
The pendulum of love can swing into the realm of compromise, and any time we get into an emotionally charged conversation about a hot button topic, whether it be gender, sex, homosexuality, abortion or anything else, we must pause and remember that yes, God did really say, and yes, he was right (Galatians 1:10).
 English, J. T. Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples o Jesus. B&H Publishing Group, 2020.