At the end of my last post, The Heartlessness of a Reward Mentality, we were left with the dilemma of restoring compassion when we’ve lost it (or birthing it if we’ve never had it). We cannot “just do it” when it comes to compassion. We can fake it, acting like we have a soft heart, but we cannot “make it so.”
The problem with lack of compassion in my heart (and perhaps your heart) is an important one, for Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that the Gentiles, who are walking in the futility of their mind, are:
“…darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality…” ~ Ephesians 4:18-19, emphasis mine
A hard heart leads to ignorance toward God and callousness toward others, resulting in alienation (from God, and I think it’s safe to say from others as well). And because you and I are designed for life together, a lack of compassion leads us farther away from being the people we were created to be.
I completely understand why it happens. We start life with a soft heart, full of trust and vulnerability. However, growing up we become wounded by events and people, sometimes traumatically, and it hurts. Deeply. As a defence mechanism we harden our heart so that it becomes a little tougher, and the next time someone hurts us, hopefully it won’t cut so intensely.
Understandable and, if these happen to us as children, important. But what happens when we grow up, find life in Christ, and hear the call to be compassionate, vulnerable, and open-hearted? How do we turn off the cynicism, negativity, sarcasm, and hardness?
I wish there was a formula that we could simply follow and presto – hard hearted to compassionate. I don’t have one for you, but I can share some of my story.
I can remember exactly when I started to harden my heart – it was when I was about eight years old and something traumatic happened to me. It cut me to the core, completely shattered my world, and I can honestly say I do not remember ever feeling as alone, in pain, and scared as I did that night. From that point on I felt I had to “make it alone” and I worked hard to be hard and not need anything or anyone. Every time pain entered my soul, I built up thick scar tissue to make sure it hurt less and less.
Then I became an adult, and God entered the picture, loving me far more than I deserved. Eventually I realized that the hardness of heart that protected me as a child was a detriment to life in God and life with others. It was also a detriment to being a pastor (oh yeah, I was a pastor with a hard heart – perhaps you’ve met one or two…). But two events happened that brought about a significant change in my heart.
First, when I was about 25, I went on a personal spiritual retreat for a day to fast and pray. During my time of prayer I specifically asked God, “Why do I have a hard time being compassionate?”
In my mind, God brought me back to the very event to which I earlier referred. It was like I was eight years all over again, and I felt every feeling I felt that night. I felt the pain, the isolation, the fear, and the fractured hopelessness. I cried all over again.
And then Jesus stepped in.
He said to me, the adult, “Nick when you were in your bed that night, hearing the things you heard, I was right there with you. I cried every tear that you cried, and I felt everything that you felt.” After saying these words to me, in my memory Jesus went to the child version of me and held him close, loving him, cherishing him, weeping over him and for him. Then (this is the best way I can describe it it) the whole event was overshadowed by his deep love for me, and he healed that memory. Now, when I think back to that event in my childhood, although I recognize the pain and sadness, what I see and feel first and foremost is God’s love.
That praying moment, as an adult, broke my heart (in a good way). Walls cracked, revealing some flesh under the stone.
The second even happened some time later. I had just come away from a counselling session, where I was talking to my counsellor about an underlying anger that was plaguing my life (another connection to hard heartedness). I was journalling about the session, and for some reason, God directed me to the Song of Songs. I began to write excerpts from this beautiful book into my journal, except inserting my name into the poem.
The result was words such as:
“Nick, you are beautiful, my love.”
“Arise my love, my beautiful one, and come away…”
“You have captivated my heart, Nick.”
You can read the whole poem here, on my other blog.
When I read these words out loud to myself (you can do the same, too, inserting your name in place of mine), any wall I had left from before was pulverized. God’s love entered deep into my heart, and I suddenly knew that I knew that I knew that God loved me. From that moment, in spite of the fact that I am a work in progress, in spite of the fact that I am still dealing with undercurrents of anger in my life, in spite of the fact that at times I still blow the compassion opportunities, I have never once doubted God’s love for me. This has revolutionized my life – with God and with others.
So how does one sum up such a long post? Simply by saying that the two ways God brought (and is bringing) the restoration of compassion in my heart is first through the healing of those aching moments that lacerated my heart, and second through the undeniable knowledge that I am loved by God.
In other words, compassion for others comes as result of God’s healing love for us. It is a response.
Finally, allow me to end by encouraging you with Exodus 17. If God can cause water to flow from a rock in the middle of a desert, surely he can cause the living water of compassion to flow from our hard hearts.
Be loved, beloved.