Recently, a friend put a plug in my ear about intellect vs. empathy and something I want to do some further research on after this last hump of school assignments is over. But the more I think about these two dynamics the more I’m giving a nod to the fact that Christians are to operate out of the latter. So I wanted to sketch out some preliminary thoughts.
Now, I don’t want to draw any false dichotomies. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should be anti-intellectual. Heavens no! Our intellect is “the power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands”. Intellect has nothing to do with being smart but using reasoning and logic. We need to use our mind, critically evaluate, analyze and reason. This is a good thing when used properly.
Empathy on the other hand, allows us to put ourselves in the other person’s place and discern what’s right for a situation. Empathy doesn’t neglect intellect but doesn’t allow it to take the reigns. Where intellect cares about the information, empathy cares about people. Empathy knows when an intellectual response is inappropriate and has the ability to keep quiet or fashion a response appropriate to the situation. Yes truth matters. Yes the right information about the gospel and the triune God matters. Empathy will know when information has to be contextualized because of the people involved. But see if I’m operating out of intellect and not empathy, I’m only concerned about information and what is correct and logical. I will justify my actions to prove what is the right information as I see it. Right information can actually be harmful if not treated with empathy.
I’ve been reflecting on that, especially as I observe the way we handle disputes, which has broader implications for how we communicate the gospel.
Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:5-6)
I was really struck by the note for this in my ESV Study Bible, which they aptly labeled Good Behavior toward Those Outside the Community.
Paul encourages the Colossians to manifest a powerful and attractive testimony to non-Christians. ‘Seasoned with Salt’ This statement echoes the teaching of Jesus when he called his disciples to be ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matt. 5:13). When applied to conversation, the metaphor suggests speaking in an interesting, stimulating, and wise way. Paul’s comments assume that the Colossian believers are vitally involved in the local community and have ample opportunities to interact with outsiders in a way that would commend the gospel.
I think this is dead on and where I must give a nod to empathy. We don’t commend the gospel to outsiders because we have the right information and are logical. Not that it isn’t needed. We commend the gospel because of how we present it out of concern for the hearers – with speech that is gracious. But notice also the comment about ample opportunities to interact with outsiders. Not only does that mean that we are actually interacting, but in a way that seeks to understand. That takes awareness.
Awareness is so crucial and it begins with us. As someone who is inclined towards the intellect and logic, I know what its like to be more concerned with correctedness and correction than the people involved. But I’m also increasingly mindful that we can be so concerned about the information that we forget about the people. That is not what commends the gospel.
And if we are truly aware, we will know how little our in-house disputes matter to non-Christians other than as a source of amusement at best. But if we are operating out of a place of intellect, we will focus on the information and miss the opportunity to be aware of what’s really going on. Nowhere has this display been more prominent than on the internet, which has become a frightening replacement for face to face communication and real relationships. But certainly, it happens in person too. We may be so concerned with our theological positions, that literally become jerks. I am increasingly mindful of how outsiders must look at us when we get in our little spats that we air publicly. As I was drafting this post, I came across this post Why We Argue Like Jerks. We do so because of something to prove. But honestly, isn’t this really about the intellect?
Christians, we don’t want to be jerks. We don’t want to be so concerned about right doctrine and right information that we forget about right practice and what may be appropriate for a situation or person. That ESV note on the Colossians passage is a sobering reminder that people are watching how we communicate this gospel we cherish so dearly. How do you communicate the gospel? As a dispensing of information or with a discerning ear towards the hearer, listening intently? That takes empathy. People want to know they matter and they aren’t just widgets or service projects as we communicate the gospel to them. But people also should see that Christians matter to each other, keeping in mind that love for one another is a defining characteristic of our Christianity. Often that means listening to our friends tell us when we’re being a jerk because we can be fooled by our own blind spots.
We want and should strive for empathy. We cannot love intellectually. We love empathetically because that takes awareness of the ‘the other’. We are able to give out of a sense of what someone needs because we are aware, even if that means holding back some information. Seeking to understand the other means we are able to set aside what we think we know, and put ourselves in that person’s place.
Listen, I don’t stand guiltless in this matter. I’ve gotten into many verbal scuffles because I was more concerned about truth than people. But the more I observe communication infractions, intra-mural disputes and even self-righteous displays of right information, it occurs to me that a theology of jerkiness is not really good theology because it doesn’t commend the gospel or characterize the kind of people that Jesus said we should be.