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God is an incredibly merciful and compassionate Being. He’s so much these things that it often makes us mad. We don’t want God to be empathetic towards that jerk who just hurt us in some major way. In such moments, we want God to be on our side and only on our side. Yet this isn’t how He is. God is on everyone’s side. He is full of empathy for you as well as for your enemy, and in both cases, His empathy is quite sincere. It really bothers us—this idea of nasty people and bad people getting buckets of blessings from God. It really bothers us that slackers, creeps, perverts, and bullies could wind up in the very same Heaven that we’re planning on going to. Well, it might bother us, but this is how God operates, so there it is. God isn’t going to dial down how merciful He is just to suit us. He delights in things like compassion, patience, grace, and forgiveness—all of which are qualities that we really struggle to develop.
So how do we get closer to a God who is so much nicer than we are? There’s only one way: we have to learn to think more like He does. If we had to do this on our own, forget it. None of us would ever get anywhere. But happily, we’re not on our own. God Himself teaches us how to get more on His page about things like mercy and compassion. Under His tutelage, we find ourselves getting less nasty and more nice. But how exactly does this work?
Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by some freak series of accidents. It’s a result of God putting you through some very strategic training. While the order in which He addresses specific topics with individual souls varies widely, there are certain core concepts that we all have to learn in order to progress past certain levels of maturity. One of those concepts is learning to focus on principles instead of particulars. This comes up in many areas of spiritual growth, but to get an idea of how it works, let’s focus on the topics of mercy and compassion.
WHY COMPASSION INSPIRES MERCY
Compassion results in mercy. Compassion is essentially a matter of identifying with someone else’s misery. Their misery might be minor or major. But the point is that you resonate with it personally, and once you resonate with it, you suddenly find yourself wanting to show that person mercy by not giving them the negative consequences that their actions technically deserve.
But wait—we’re selfish beings and mercy is an outward focused thing. So why does having compassion for someone make you want to act mercifully towards them? The answer is: because you’re so selfish. You see, as a general rule, you are way more merciful to yourself than you are to others. Even if you’re a perfectionist who is ridiculously hard on yourself in certain areas, you’re very lenient in other areas. When you’re in a bad mood, you want other people to treat you graciously and patiently endure your snarky attitude. But when someone else is in a bad mood and they take some verbal potshot at you, your natural response is to get annoyed and gripe about how unfairly you were treated. When others wrong you, you want revenge, and you often don’t mind throwing a little escalation into the mix. But when you wrong others, you’re full of reasons why we should all forgive and forget. “I was in a hurry. I was having a hard day. I didn’t see that red light. I didn’t know that was against the rules. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
The beautiful thing about compassion is that it makes us move someone else into the special mental category that we usually reserve only for ourselves—the category which entitles them to extra leniency. Once we identify with someone in some strong way, we suddenly find ourselves wanting to give them the same extra mercy that we’re always trying to get for ourselves. You’re an alcoholic and you’re between benders when you see John staggering out of a bar completely wasted. While non-alcoholics passing by shoot John disapproving glares, you hurry over to steady him and you insist on driving him home because you don’t want to see him get hurt. While someone else might be focused on protecting the other people on the road who John might hit if he drives, you’re trying to protect John himself. To you, John isn’t just some repulsive addict who is selfishly endangering lives. You identify with his struggle because you’re in the midst of that same struggle yourself. It’s the fact that you identify with John that inspires you to want to act mercifully towards him.
Or maybe you’re an army colonel and one of the guys in your unit just flipped out and gunned down a bunch of innocent civilians. While everyone else is going to focus on how heinous his actions were, you can see that the kid is stressed out of his mind because he’s just not cut out to handle the horrors of war. You had a pretty brutal introduction to military life yourself back when you were first drafted in. Because you personally identify, you are very merciful when your guy is crying all over you later on. You don’t just treat him like some sick animal for gunning down defenseless women and children. You see him as a wounded person and you deal with him gently when other commanding officers would just ream him out and worsen his already fragile condition.
Or maybe your buddy just found out that his girlfriend is cheating on him. He responds by going ballistic and raping her. Everyone who finds out about it rushes to sympathize with the girl while your buddy is treated like a subhuman life form. When he’s carted off to jail, you’re the only one who goes to see him, and you’re the only one who hasn’t written him off. Why are you being so nice? Because you’ve been there. Back in your college days, you had a similar situation in which your girl was cheating on you and you reacted the same way. Because you know what it is to be ragingly insecure and unable to process heart pain, you are filled with compassion for your buddy and you don’t just write him off. Instead, you stick by him, and it’s thanks to your friendship that he’s able to move on with his life and grow into a better person instead of just wallowing in pain and violence.
What’s inspiring compassion in all of these scenarios is identity with the particulars of a situation. Because you personally understand the internal issues that drive a man to respond to emotional betrayal with sexual assault, you have compassion for other guys who do this. But when it comes to the dad who molests his daughter, that’s a whole different deal. The particulars of the dad’s situation are significantly different than the particulars of your past experience, thus you are prone to withhold all compassion and be merciless. This is a common pattern among humans: if we show any compassion, it’s limited to those whose personal circumstances are very similar to our own. If the details of their circumstances vary too much, compassion for them never develops and instead we act as if their crimes are inexcusable. Where there is no compassion, there is no mercy. Where there is no mercy, there is harsh judgement. Look at all of the hate that people spew over certain kinds of sex offenders online. The strength of their sentiment reflects what we default to when we are refusing to have compassion for someone. It’s ugly.
Compassion is a choice. It’s an attitude you need to decide to embrace, and we don’t all do this. Plenty of times, people have all of the resources they need to produce compassion but they refuse to do so. Why is this? Why does the recovered alcoholic talk so hatefully towards those who are still struggling? He obviously identifies with them, so why is he refusing to let that identity convert into compassion? This is another very common pattern among humans: those who identify the most with the particulars of someone else’s struggle will be particularly aggressive towards them. Such hypocritical behavior stems from someone being personally unable to face their own failings.
When other people remind us of qualities or facts about ourselves which we are unable to face or forgive, we often respond with aggression. It’s a form of self-defense. We feel very threatened by the upsetting things about ourselves which that other person’s behavior is reminding us of, therefore we attack that other person to try and create distance between them and us. You don’t want to remember what an abusive jerk you were during your first marriage, so when your buddy is acting like a jerk with his wife, you harshly condemn him for it and act like you can’t even understand what his problem is. You haven’t been able to accept God’s forgiveness for that abortion you had, so when your girlfriend gets one, you read her the riot act about murdering some innocent child and then cut her out of your life.
STAGE 1 OF COMPASSION TRAINING
Given what selfish, troubled little things we are, how does God mature us in the area of compassion? Maybe you let the compassion flow on topics you feel safe with, such as diet struggles and an addiction to coffee. But when other topics arise you quickly morph into a vicious miser of mercy who really plunges in the blade. Here’s where your identity with God is sorely lacking, because He is merciful across the board, while you’re only being merciful towards one tiny little segment of humanity—and even then only in certain contexts. No problem, God delights in the process of maturing you. None of us are born nice. We’re all born screaming for own way and God then begins teaching us how to take a sincere interest in the needs and feelings of others.
The first step in helping you develop compassion for those who you are currently withholding it from is to increase your identity with them. There are two basic ways God does this, depending on what your current roadblocks are. If you’ve already got buckets of identity, but you’re trying not to admit it to yourself because you’re too ashamed of your own struggles, then God starts helping you get out of your current state of denial. He keeps reminding you of how much you’ve “been there” while simultaneously teaching you how to receive the compassion and mercy He has for you. God accepts and loves you as you are—the more you submit to this, the more you will be able to access your identity with others without feeling threatened.
But perhaps you don’t identify with others because you’re so stuck on the fact that the particulars about their situation are ones which you’ve never personally experienced. To get you over your pride about having never sunk that low, God arranges circumstances in your life which force you to become exactly like those who you think you’re so much better than. This is the kind of training that is being referred to when people talk about “being forced to walk a mile in the other fellow’s shoes.” You just can’t imagine how that jerk who plowed into you could have really not seen the red light until the day you find yourself flying through an intersection with the sun in your eyes only to smack right into another vehicle the same way that you were smacked into. You then realize that you were the one who was in the wrong because you ran a red light. And as you stand there protesting that you honestly didn’t see the light, God is making the memory of what that other guy said to you clang loudly in your mind. Suddenly you realize how he felt and you see his actions in a different light. And because you were so vicious to him at the time, you also identify with why the driver you just hit is being so unsympathetic with you. By making you wrong someone else in the way that you were wronged, God gets you unstuck from your judgmental attitude and now the compassion is flowing. Suddenly you’re getting a whole new understanding of what is meant by the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” You didn’t position the sun just right in the sky to blind yourself—you reacted to circumstances that God set up for you. Once He demonstrates how easy it is for Him to trip you up, you realize that you’re out of line to take all of the credit for being such a fabulous driver. You’re not keeping yourself out of accidents—you’re having a whole lot of help. And as for the guy who is now cussing you out for wrecking his new sports car, you’re realizing that you’d still be as merciless as he’s being if God wasn’t teaching you better.
We humans can’t take the bows for our own maturity. Without God’s constant intervention and instruction, we’d never grow past the infant mentality of wanting the whole universe to revolve around us. In any situation, we need God’s empowerment to rise above the lowest depths of depravity. Apart from His gracious help, we’d all be a bunch of violent beasts—this is what we learn through compassion training.
STAGE 2 OF COMPASSION TRAINING
As God keeps bringing new trials and temptations into your life and you keep falling flat on your face, you’re identity with other humans is rapidly growing. But here’s where we get into the second stage of compassion training. God wants to teach you how to get a lot more mileage out of your negative experiences in this world than you’re currently getting. Okay, so you know what it is to get drunk, so now you have compassion towards those who drink too much. But what if you stopped focusing so much on the particulars and started paying more attention to the general principles at work. What started you drinking in the first place? You wanted to feel better. Maybe you were sad or stressed or feeling left out. The particulars don’t really matter—the general principle is far more useful. People drink to feel better. And why didn’t you stop drinking when you should have? Because you just didn’t feel like trying to scrape up the self-control to stop. This is a very common human principle: we just don’t find it easy to try and stop doing things that we feel are benefiting us in some way. We’re very focused on the now, and we’re not so keen on thinking about the negative consequences our actions might have.
Once you shift your focus off of particulars and onto general principles, suddenly you can find yourself identifying with a huge category of behaviors and decisions which have nothing to do with the specific circumstance of getting drunk. Why does a girl jump in the sack with some guy she barely knows? Because she wants to feel better. Why does a man keep looking at porn when he knows it’s wrong? Because at least part of him is enjoying the experience, and we humans don’t like to stop doing things we enjoy. See how it works? Focusing on principles instead of particulars is a much more efficient way to develop compassion.
Any human behavior or decision process can be boiled down to basic principles which all humans can identify with. Once you realize this, you start experiencing a kind of compassion which is far more like God’s: one which readily flows out to everyone over any little thing. Take the molester: what basic principles are at work in his situation? Selfishness, for one. He wants what he wants and he doesn’t care what it costs someone else. Who can’t identify with this mentality? We’re all selfish. We all know what it is to take advantage of an imbalance of power to get our own way. Because your vehicle is so much bigger than the car next to you, you simply start coming over and the driver in the other lane is intimidated into moving out of your way. You’re using your superior size and dominating attitude to cow someone else into giving you what you want. Well, how are you different than the molester? He also uses his superior physical strength and a domineering aura to intimidate his victim into submitting to him. You want to use the difference in particulars as an excuse to withhold sympathy from the sexual abuser, but in real life, you’re operating on the same basic principles that he is.
What about the gay man who gets in the sack with his gay lover? A lot of Christians love to flip out over this situation. And yet when we boil it down to basic principles, what we see is a man who wants to do something that God says is wrong, and he does it anyway. Well, who can’t identify with this? You want to do plenty of things that God says are wrong, and then you act like it’s no big deal because you’ve decided the particulars of your situation are more important than the principles. Well, no, they’re not. God judges us by principles. He cares far more about why we’re doing what we’re doing than what exactly it is that we’re doing.
It’s because God puts principles over particulars that He makes a lot of judgments we don’t like and He doesn’t play this game of ranking sins based on behavioral details. The virgin looks down her nose at the girl who sleeps around and thinks, “I’m more pure than she is.” Well, not hardly. Both girls sin up a storm, they just sin in different ways. God doesn’t act like the girl who sleeps around is the only one guilty of sexual immorality because He sees the virgin lusting after her dream lovers and reading her pornographic romance novels. Both girls are being sexually impure. They’re both guilty of the same basic principle: putting what they want above what God wants and then trying to justify their disobedience with a bunch of excuses. Happily, God is merciful, and He doesn’t just judge based on the fact that each girl is sinning. He looks at the whole picture. He looks at loneliness factors and emotional resources and identity issues. He takes responsibility for how much empowerment He is or isn’t giving each girl and He judges them according to how they responded to Him in light of the resources He provided for them.
As easy as it is to say, “Just say no to temptation,” actually doing this requires things like self-control, the courage to stand up in the face of peer pressure, and a certain lack of desperation. The man who isn’t even thirsty can easily resist the temptation to steal water. The man who is desperately thirsty is going to feel so overwhelmed by his physical needs that he’s not going to have what it takes to respect the law. Humans just look at the behavior and judge harshly. But God judges far more graciously and He abounds in mercy. This isn’t to say that God never hands out a harsh ruling—of course He does. Hell is real, and every day God is adding to its population. But if we’re going to deepen our own communion with God, we need to get a better understanding of how compassionate He is because compassion and mercy are things which He greatly values.
Our primary motivation for wanting to mature in life should not be to please others, but rather to please God. God’s opinion is the only One that matters. God is the One we’re supposed to be living for. So we want to learn to think more like He thinks out of a desire to build identity with Him so that our own communion with Him will become richer and deeper. If this sounds selfish, it’s because it is. God created us to be selfish beings, and He wants us to remain selfish about some things. It’s selfish to want to obtain God’s approval, yet this is also a very correct priority for a Christian to have. The altruistic mindset of wanting to help others just to help others is totally off the mark. God didn’t create us for the purpose of going around trying to figure out how we could help other created beings enjoy their lives more. He created us to revolve around Him, and improving our own relationship with Him should be our primary reason for submitting to His maturation program.
The more we mature in the area of compassion, the more merciful and gracious we become. We stop losing sight of the great value of other souls simply because those souls are caught up in repulsive behaviors. God loves all souls. It’s easier to connect with this fact as long as you lump all humans into one group. But look into the face of that terrorist or that convicted criminal or that person who wronged someone you love and suddenly the idea of God loving them becomes very offensive to you and you want to reject it. Compassion training helps us stop rejecting the gracious nature of God. It helps us better understand His Divine perspective of humans, and in doing that, we better understand how He views us personally.
God is merciful. He’s so merciful that it’s just mind-blowing. His mercy flows from His immense compassion, and it is because He is so compassionate towards us that succeeding with Him is so easy to do. The better we understand just how good God is, the more hope and joy we experience in our own walks with Him. This is why we always want to embrace any growth opportunities that God brings our way and ask Him to help us absorb everything that He wants to teach us. Life is about pursuing a deeper walk with our glorious Maker, and learning to think more like He does is a critical part of that process.
Why God Wants You to Stay Selfish
Distinguishing Between Grace & Mercy
Dealing with Sinners
Repentant Sinners: Is it wrong to stop feeling bad about the past?
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy