Out of the Box – May 31, 2012

It is an oft-stated cliché that “one thing leads to another.” How does that apply to prayer? Does one prayer lead to another? I believe it does.

One of the prayers that I have occasionally prayed is, “Lord, help my heart to be broken by the things that break your heart.” I believe he has answered that prayer by imparting to me the quality of empathy. What is empathy? It is “the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation,” Oxford Pocket American Dictionary of Current English.

When Yeshua looked out over Jerusalem and said, passionately, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing,” (Luke 13:24), I believe he was expressing empathy. Jesus knew how good it could be for Israel’s capital if it would only heed and obey God’s messages through his prophets. The city, and its leaders, kept “shooting themselves in the foot” instead of listening to God. This reality disturbed Yeshua no end.

When Jesus expressed compassion on a hungry audience or for a sick or crippled person, he was manifesting the gift of empathy (Matthew 14:14; 15:32; Mark 5:19; Mark 8:2 & Luke 10:33).

It is because of Jesus’ empathy that he is able to dispense grace and mercy to us when we approach God’s throne: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest [cohen gadol] who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need,” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

In the Psalms, we find additional understanding of God’s compassion and empathy: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust,” (Psalm 103:8 & 14).

God can, and does, impart to us the gifts of compassion and empathy. I believe he has answered my prayer that my heart may be broken by the things that break his heart. When God looks down upon the suffering of mankind – the false religion, the hatred and murders, the abuse of people created in his image, widows and orphans, the slaves, the tortures, sickness and disease, homelessness, cruelty and brutality, the abuse of animals, etc. etc. – God is deeply moved. He gave us dominion and free agency and we have abused them. He gave us freedom and we have replaced it with tyranny.

If, in the middle of human chaos and tragedy, God gives one of us a gift of empathy, what then? We may encounter someone for whom we feel great empathy – a sick person, a homeless woman, a victim of abuse and injustice, a person abused by gangs or bullies, a wife abused by her husband etc. etc. — what do we do? Automatically roll up our sleeves and plunge into the middle of the situation and try to help? Isn’t that what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about?

We may even find that God has given us a special empathy for animals. There was a show on Animal Planet called “Be the Creature.” It was the ultimate expression of empathy for animals.  The two hosts – the Kratt brothers – actually got into living as certain animals and mixing with them in their natural habitats. It was a dangerous concept.

Empathy is a wonderful gift. It makes us sensitive to what’s really going on around us. Often it elicits a response – an attempt to rescue, to help, to save, to exercise mercy, to set free.  All those are natural reactions – but they may or may not be appropriate in a given situation. That’s why, after being given empathy, we must pray for wisdom.

Wisdom is Next

My father used to frequently remind me that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” He was right. Before we act on our compassion, we must ask for wisdom so that we know when to act and how to act. If we don’t receive this next gift, we may find ourselves acting inappropriately and making matters worse.

Consider this piece of wisdom: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own,” (Proverbs 26:17).

At least two things are involved in helping: timing and appropriateness. Part of the latter involves “discernment of spirits,” (II Corinthians 12:10). Both are a matter of wisdom. Helping some people could easily become a life’s work. If we commit to helping someone, we’d better be prepared to follow through. We may or may not have the resources to do that.

I have a particular concern for the homeless and for orphans. I can easily picture myself in their situation. The problem, however, is monumental. The world is full of refugees who have no place to go for shelter and protection. Famine, drought, war, disease and terrorism are creating hordes of orphans all over the third world. Who could not be “moved with compassion” when confronted with their plight?

It’s too much. Yet to do nothing is unacceptable. We must respond. Wisdom tells us to respond in ways that are within our capacity and means. In our city, some 50,000 homeless people may be found sleeping under freeway overpasses, on the street, next to dumpsters, on park and bus benches, in cardboard boxes and so on. In the winter months, some find their way into shelters. What can we do?

At the very least, we can pray for these hapless folks. God has all the resources in the universe. God may work with us to help those we have the means to help. We can do what we can without creating an expectation of endless help. Any homeless person is a window on others. The homeless in a neighborhood are networked with each other. When they can, they help each other out. The more one learns about their world, the more painful the picture. We ask, “What would I do in their situation? How would I survive? How would I get medical help?”

The homeless, some of whom are orphans, are reduced to Maslow’s lowest level: survival. They need basics like food, water and shelter. They need money. They need protection.  Providing all those things for any individual, or group, may be far beyond the means of most of us. For example, in the Los Angeles area, there are some 51,000 homeless on the streets at any given time. So we do what we can, when we can. We look for large groups and institutions that can help: governments, churches, even foundations and companies.

It takes wisdom to know what will work, and what is appropriate. We may not be able to do what our heart demands. Sometimes helping can be misinterpreted as kidnapping, molesting, meddling or interfering. The best of intentions can lead us into a minefield of conflict. Hence the need for wisdom.

Timing is also important. Sometimes God may want us to help – but not yet. When the person is properly positioned, and the time is right, you’ll know it if you’ve asked.

Finally – Faith

It usually takes faith to do what God wants us to do. It takes faith to pray for a stranger, or for someone who is hostile, atheistic, bitter or angry. Faith is not something we have naturally – we must ask for it. Think of what God commanded his prophets and servants to do by faith. They “…conquered kingdoms, administered justice and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received their dead raised to life again…” (Hebrews 11:33-35).

It takes faith to lead a godly life on almost any level.

Summing Up

Any one of these points could be elaborated on almost endlessly. The Bible is full of relevant examples of these principles in action. I’ll leave it up to you to follow through.

To sum up: Pray that God will break your heart with the things that break his heart. Ask for compassion and empathy. Learn to walk a mile in another’s moccasins. Get out of yourself and think vicariously about the reality of others. When compassion moves you to act, ask for wisdom. Think about what it is within your capacity to do, but let God prepare the ground. Take the “case” before God and ask for discernment. Ask about timing and appropriateness.

Think about how your actions will be perceived by others. Consider finding a partner to help you with your helping.

Once the Holy Spirit has led you to an action plan, wait for God’s timing. Then ask for the faith to carry out what compassion has demanded of you. Finally – go for it!