Compassion is the key to change
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Getting tough with people as a motivation for better behaviour is overrated. In fact, it's successful only within a range that falls within our comfort zones and doesn't trigger a trauma response. But even though it often produces results akin to flogging a dead or dying horse, many insist it's always the best policy; especially, sadly, religiously minded folks and those who believe in coercion to obey law - as though we always have the ability to make any good choice by sheer force of will.
Jesus, on the other hand, sang high praises for compassion in contrast to the religious leaders of his day who called for punishment against the immoral masses. He spoke of mercy for "lost sheep" and promised the kingdom of God to those who were in mourning and knew their spiritual poverty. He also practiced compassion with stunning results.
It was with compassion that Jesus so readily embraced Zacchaeus, the notorious extortioner of Jericho, who immediately responded with a complete turnaround of immoral practice. And to the woman caught in adultery, we understand that she followed his advice to "go and sin no more" -- after compassion, not judgment, was meted out. This radical compassionate approach was as scandalous in Jesus' day as our own. If you find you're not being accused of promoting bad behaviour -- as he was -- chances are you're not practicing Jesus-like compassion.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Instead of promoting immoral behaviour that many fear would be the outcome, we find that "kindness leads to repentance". The secret to compassion's success lies in the change of heart that must occur prior to behavioral change. Wash the inside of the cup and outside will become clean as well. Don't focus on the behaviour but what is motivating the behaviour.
Here is the psychology behind compassion: the amygdala in the limbic system of our brains is wired to sense and respond to danger - even before we "think" about it. (In fact, it's doing the subconscious thinking before our brilliant analysis of dangerous situations kicks in). Rare is the person beyond 5 years old who hasn't been terribly hurt and humiliated by unjust punishment and condemnation. We inwardly vow, therefore, to never put up with more of the same throughout our lives; in fact, the amygdala demands we fight or flee when it senses a similar case of injustice is occurring. Do you get a strong aversion when being mistreated because you are misunderstood? That's the amygdala for you.
The problem is, the amygdala is not equipped for analysis or updating the information in your prefrontal cortex as you mature. So all those behaviour management courses you’ve been taking doesn’t help so much. That’s because the amygdala has the power to throw your analytical brain offline in the event of an unsafe situation - when it’s emotionally triggered. In your normally safe moments you’d analyse situations with more maturity and grace and so make better choices - so long as your amygdala doesn’t interfere. Enter compassion, which is the key to make the amygdala feel safe in triggering situations and open up those brain circuits required for lasting change.
When compassion is present, we feel safe to connect to others and open our ears to hear correction. We can accept that we have gone astray once we see how our "sin" was intended to meet a desperate need in our time of pain or confusion. Evil or sinful responses is not what people have been wired to do. Those responses are distortions enacted in times of temptation, driven by the amygdala to find comfort and safety. When we are accepted and understood to have acted as best we could at the time of our error, the mask of shame is removed and we have the courage to look at our shortcomings and failures.
Plentiful dollops of condemnation and judgment is a core value to correct behaviour in every human society, it seems, propagated by the fear that anything less harsh would result in rampant sin. What makes this so insidious is that most of us easily adopt self-condemnation as a response to anything we think is wrong about us. We can even think we are hopelessly broken or beyond redemption. Yet that is just a lie - and Jesus came to set us free from the grip of condemnation, empowered by fear.
And why would any Christian want to carry on in sin a moment longer after becoming Spirit empowered? Yes, there are some who don’t mind sinning, but their future condemnation is deserved as Paul also rightly points out. But for those of us still struggling for reasons unknown, a little more compassion rather than get-tough resolve will go a long way to unlock the underlying issues that still so easily beset us.
There is always a back-story to every wayward life. The reason we needed a saviour is because we don’t simply have the power to choose rightly based upon willpower. But the truth will make us free - if only we could hear it. When compassion is present, we hear the truth, and thereby set free. Compassion unlocks that door of shame and lets the truth come shining in.