Gal. 5. My husband told me on our second date, “you know, when you really empathize with someone, it’s an out of body experience.”
I loved that. I loved him. Not that I told him I loved at the time, of course. But I loved that he got how rare it is to truly empathize and also how wonderful it feels when we do. I also loved the idea of there being a supernatural element to empathy.
Maybe empathy truly is a divine encounter. I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, because a lack of empathy is one of those scary things it’s so easy to see in others and so hard to see in ourselves. I also am trying to learn how you empathize without enabling. How do you make sure you don’t become the evil you hate?
In thinking about empathy, I remembered the first time I ever really “got” God’s point of view. I was talking to my Dad on a pay phone in boarding school about predestination – a normal 16 year old conversation, right? And I said, “that’s not fair! Why would only some people go to heaven and not others?”
Dad said, “from God’s point of view, no one deserves to go to heaven. You’re looking at it backwards.”
All of a sudden-boom-I got it. “Oh,” I said. Time stood still. I remember now exactly where I was sitting; how the sun was coming in the window; and what the phone felt like in my hand.
The moment of understanding a perspective totally different than our own – in this case God’s – is indeed an “out of body” experience. It teaches us that our “normal” viewpoint is inexorably our own. But who wants to be selfish? So when unhappiness and restlessness struck me like the plague in college a few years later, I knew enough to know that I needed not a new toy but a whole new perspective. I needed a new heart. I needed God’s heart. So I asked for faith, and to my surprise He gave it to me. And since that moment, it’s been a wild, exciting, joyful ride.
One of the coolest things God does once we invite Him in (or is it once He finds us?) is this two-fold way He shows us: (1) how completely lacking in certain things we are; and at the very same time (2) how completely loved we are by Him. His love is the buffer that enables us to empathize with Him – especially about the places in our hearts that are hard, the way the Central Park reservoir in my picture above is half frozen, half liquid right now. God wants to melt more and more of our heart, so He can give us dvine encounters with Himself and others. Even more, when He melts our hearts Into something so liquid we can hear Him, He gives us everything we’ve ever wanted – and more.
Which brings us to one the most helpful stunning epistles in the New Testament. If I had to pick just one chapter of the Bible to recommend, Galatians 5 might be it… Yet that’s exactly the kind of rule bound legalism this chapter so vigorously opposes. This chapter presents two ways to live. One stems from a hard heart and one from a soft one. One is to be trapped, and the other is total freedom. One is selfish, and the other is merciful. One is dead, the other is alive. One is cruel and the other is kind. One is ill tempered, and the other is even tempered. One is full of jealousy and strife, and the other is filled with peace and joy. One is harsh and the other is gentle. One is to be blocked from being the person we’ve always wanted, and the other is to grow into our true selves. All of the good ways are natural outgrowths of allowing God to be in the driver’s seat, of walking with God, of listening to Him, of opening ourselves up to be vulnerable to Him. And none of the good ways have to do with rules.
That’s why It’s such a shame that Christianity gets seen as all about “rules.” According to this chapter, Christianity is actually the “opposite” of rules. Yes, you read that right. Paul says here that the “obvious” and bad stuff in us that we all have and all despise – like anger, jealousy and hate – come from the Law. The good stuff we long for – like peace, joy and kindness – come from God’s Spirit. Gal. 5:17-18. It’s no wonder people turn away from Christianity if they think it’s about rules. Rules are hard, harsh, sharp and unyielding. But don’t we have to be good? Aren’t we supposed to earn God’s love? Aren’t we supposed to try harder to be good people?
As my Dad explained to me when I was 16, that’s exactly where we go wrong. Paul here says that we have to guard against that kind of thinking as vigorously as if our very lives depend upon it. Gal. 5: 4, 25. Because they do. This chapter is talking about life, real life, the kind of life we all long for. It tells us how to get it. Lean in. Lean in hard. Because this chapter holds the key to life.
The key is that salvation is through grace alone, not by anything we do. One of the reasons this chapter is so compelling is that Paul lists here how to get the 8 Things We’ve All Always Wanted. We may think we want other things – like jobs, looks, careers, relationships, money, success, power, fame – but if we think about it for more than a nanosecond, we’ll realize that none of those things will do us any good if we don’t have the 8 things Paul here lists, things he calls the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit.
For instance, what good is money if we have no self-control? We’ll spend our money in an hour like a kid with a credit card in FAO Schwarz. Or what good is looks if we have no peace? We’ll go under the knife for plastic surgery in search of better looks – and become caricatures of ourselves. What good are relationships if we have no love? We’ll bounce from one person to the other, always wondering what’s wrong with other people. We will be like Carrie in one of my favorite Sex in the City episodes complaining to a therapist about all the men she’s dated, and the therapist asks, “well, Carrie, what do all these men have in common?”
Carries says, “they’re all jerks?”
“No, Carrie,” the therapist responds. “The answer is you. They all have you in common.”
Oh. Right. Maybe it isn’t them that’s ruining all our relationships, maybe it’s something in us, that lies in all of us, that we’re letting have the upper hand. Or how can success help us if we lack joy? We will feel spectacularly unsuccessful without joy, so we’ll keep trying to gain more success, only to wear ourselves out with the trying. If we have no patience, we’ll throw our success, relationships or anything else away in a fit of pique. The 8 qualities here listed are what underpin the good in our lives, and they are, deep down, the things we’ve all always wanted. In short, this chapter tells us how to get:
“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
If we allowed God to give us those 8 things, we would be allowing Him to give us the lives of excitement, contentment and joy we’ve all longed for. We could be in a place to bless others instead of sucking them dry. We could empathize without enabling. We could be the person we’ve always wanted and live the lives we’ve always wanted. In short, this chapter provides the key to everything we’ve ever wanted.
Great, we think again. What do we do??
Again, that’s where the trouble starts. It’s the question we humans always ask when offered God’s way, and it’s the wrong question. What we’re asking for when we ask that question is RULES. That, I think, is one of the reason Christianity gets associated with rules. We humans are addicted to them. We pile them on ourselves like kids burying ourselves in sand at the beach. Paul here is shocked. He’s like, HOLD IT FOLKS I JUST TOLD YOU YOU’RE FREE IN CHRIST, AND SAVED BY GRACE ALONE, NOT ANYTHING YOU DO, SO WHY THE HECK ARE YOU PILING RULES ONTO YOURSELVES?
Paul begins this chapter sternly by discussing one big rule that Christians at the time were piling on themselves – circumcision – but it’s a metaphor for all the rules we use to try to prove to God and others that we’re “good people”, or that we “deserve” heaven. Paul explains here that if we want to get to heaven by obeying the rules, we literally can’t. We’d have to obey all of them. Gal. 5:3. Paul doesn’t mince words. He says that if we think we can be in right standing with God by obeying rules, we’ve “separated” ourselves from Christ. He says we’ve “fallen away from grace” – from “God’s gracious favor and unmerited blessing.” Paul reiterates that if we’ve in Christ, the only thing that matters is “faith activated… through love.” Gal. 5:6. He says that if we can be in a right relationship with God by obeying rules, we would have removed the offense of the cross. We would have made the cross “meaningless.” Gal. 5:11.
Here’s the part that confuses us and twists us up in knots. It’s because it’s so very different than the way we think. Paul says that even just a “little” bit of rule based thinking will trip us up, the way just a tiny bit of yeast will make flour puff right up. Gal. 5:9. We have to somehow get it into our prideful brains that we don’t have to do anything. God did it for us. We have to soften our hearts down to putty. We have to take in the fact that our freedom lies in dependence. It’s so liberating to accept we need help from God and others in our work, play, marriages, parenting, relationships, philanthropies and our hobbies. We need God in everything. We need God for everything. We are utterly dependent on Him. He made us that way. We fight Him on this every day, like babies trying to spit out our milk bottles. But once we accept who we are and what that means for us, we can let Him in.
The fruit of the Spirit, like all fruit, grows naturally on a tree planted in the right soil, exposed to the right amount of sun, and watered with the right liquid. We can’t force ourselves to be more patient or kind. It doesn’t work. Instead, when we accept we need help, we break. When we see how hard our hearts are, we melt. When we look to the cross and see the way God died for us to set us free, our pride withers.
And that’s when God’s Spirit can grow good things in us. He gives us productive lives of contentment and joy. We can become who we were created to be. We can be the people we’ve always longed to be.
For grace is what my father was talking about when he was explaining how anyone gets into heaven. Grace is how we’re saved. And grace is the secret to joy, to becoming people who can forgive without agreeing that what we’re forgiving is okay.
It’s radical stuff.
And we can’t have it both ways. If we give up the lie that we’re good, we get to join the party. And what a party it is. Paul here says that if we accept God’s grace and His freedom, we will finally be free to serve each other through love. He will have melted us. This chapter is where Paul says that the whole law concerning human relationships can be summed up as: “You shall love your neighbor as [you do] yourself.” Not that we should love our neighbor more than ourselves – or less – but as. Gal. 5:14. None of us can do this on our own. We have to let God come in and change our hearts.
And that, I suppose, is what we can do. We can give up our pride – that hard unyielding, dare I say, unfriendly, thing in all of us that can’t ask for help – from God or man. That beast in us called pride wakes up ravenous. Every day we must choose to starve it. The answer lies in surrender. The only way to win this battle in enemy occupied territory known as planet earth is to surrender completely to our seemingly absent king. Once we do that, we discover Him everywhere. We hear Him everywhere. He grows us in peace, joy and love. He opens our ears to hear Him, more and more, because He speaks with love. We learn to listen for the sound of his voice, like sheep listening for their shepherd.
And best of all, we start to have those out of body experiences all the time. We discover the ‘radical listening’ that counselors and self-help books are always touting become fun rather than threatening. We can listen, truly listen, to the pain and outpourings of others without being afraid we’ll get swallowed up in it, because we keep going back to the source. We keep being renewed. We keep asking for God to melt all the frozen places in our hearts and fill us with His Holy Spirit instead. God will grow these good things inside of us not because of anything He does, but because He loves us too much to allow us to wallow around in anger and pride.
All we “do” is lean in and listen. We’ll hear God whispering that we can relax. Everything is going to be okay. Really. God has done the hard impossible work – even the impossible work of helping us do nothing.
In our nothing is His everything. And in Him, we find what we’ve always wanted. He gives us a new heart that can love Him and others and ourselves. For love is the biggest out of body experience of all.
posted by Caroline Coleman on January 31, 2015
p.s. my take on predestination is the cautionary one shared by Milton, who described the demons in Paradise Lost “wandering in mazes lost” discussing predestination. Like God, I hope and pray every person goes to heaven. (“God “does not want anyone to perish, but wants everyone to repent.” 2 Peter 3:9; God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; 1 Tim. 2:4). I know God can offer salvation through Christ even to humans in the death throes of being hit by a bus. (see, e.g. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the field, where people who just arrived are “paid” the same as those who’ve been there all day; Matt. 20:1-16). And beyond that, I just trust God to do the right thing for every human because only He knows our hearts and only He knows best and only He loves us more than we can ask or imagine.