Friday, July 22, 2011

Practicing Compassion

I read something on a blog recently that has been churning in my mind and spirit ever since. The title of the post was “Is my dad in heaven or hell?” The writer’s father had died years before in a car accident. She later found Jesus and became very concerned about where her dad was spending eternity. She went to her minister seeking comfort and asked him if her dad was in hell. Now what do you think that minister said?

“Yes, your dad is in hell.”


I’m not going to get into a theological discussion, much as I’m tempted to. I’m not here to debate whether there is a heaven or a hell, or who gets to go where, or if there is any person on this earth who knows for a fact what the answer is to any of these questions. I’m not even here to discuss the pastoral counseling skills of a minister who would tell a grieving daughter that her dad is in hell and she will be forever separated from someone she dearly loved.

What I am here to do is to confess that I am having a hard time feeling compassion for this minister. In fact, I have been full of judgment and outrage, and despair over what, to me, is a perversion on so many levels of a faith I love.

Justified? Perhaps. But that is not really the point. If I believe that judgment and anger separate us from others and that any separation from others is a separation from God, and I do, then I want to find a way to mend that broken connection. So I’ve gone back to the focus of this month – Step 7–Practice compassion. I noticed, really noticed, perhaps for the first time, the first word. Practice. Okay, so perhaps compassion is a skill I can actually practice. And perhaps I can get better at it.

[Of course, I would like to get better at it fast. I’m reminded of my daughter who came home from her first lacrosse practice saying she hated the game because she didn’t know how to play. I asked her how long she had been playing. Two hours, she replied in a huff. I suggested that she give it two more hours before she decided. She came home the next day loving the game and went on to play varsity for two years. But I digress.]

It’s easy to feel compassion for the writer of the post. I don’t need to “practice” compassion for people who are vulnerable and hurt, for hungry children, for animals in distress. Compassion springs forth naturally when a story touches our hearts and breaks them open. The real practice occurs when compassion does not spontaneously arise, when aversion or anger or fear has closed our hearts and separated us from someone we have labeled as “other.”

If I believe that all people are beloved children of God, and I do, then how do I claim my kinship with this minister who withholds comfort from an aggrieved daughter, who presumes to stand in judgment over a beloved father? I could think, “There goes a beloved child of God, cleverly disguised as a #@*&.” Oops, then I guess that would be me presuming to stand in judgment over the minister. Hmm.

If I believe that everything we do or think or say is either an expression of love or a call for love, and I do, then this minister’s words, surely not an expression of love, are necessarily and just as surely a call for love. Perhaps not a conscious call, or even an unconscious one. Rather, a spirit’s call to be reconnected to all that is good and light and loving. When I characterize his words in this way, I feel my perspective shift, my tension ease, my heart soften. And in this moment, my spirit responds and sends a blessing his way.

Go with God, my brother.

Related post: Calling for Love


  1. I agree with you. Even if the minister thought that, he doesn't know what the man's last dying prayer was. Dealing with people in grief requires compassion, sensitivity, love and a gentle spirit. I am sure your friend had enough pain to deal with already.

  2. I really have no idea how a person's own minister, no...I too will hold my peace, but I must say if that were me, or someone close to me I would say perhaps one needs to rethink spending any more time with that minister, really....

  3. "If I believe that judgment and anger separate us from others and that any separation from others is a separation from God, and I do, then I want to find a way to mend that broken connection".

    Powerful words.

    Finding a way to mend that broken connection is where I am right now. I love this post.

  4. Shanda--True, no one knows. I hope she has found the assurance she is seeking elsewhere.

    Karen--I know. It's hard not to focus on what the minister did instead of our own reactions to it.

    Udara--Those powerful words come from A Course in Miracles. If you are facing a similar challenge, I hope this concept will help you shift your perspective to mend the broken connection.

  5. Beautiful post! It really hit the spot :)
    Thank you, as always.

    Kelly @ My Joy Project

  6. Kelly--My pleasure. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Only God knows the condition of someone's presumptuous of that minister. A grieving person needs compassion and kindness and I am not seeing that in his words.

  8. Wow. Your practising is working as far as I can see - I was astonished at the compassion in your words: "everything we do or think or say is either an expression of love or a call for love, and I do, then this minister’s words, surely not an expression of love, are necessarily and just as surely a call for love." My first reaction to the minister would have been identical to Karen's.

    This post gave me a great deal to think about, Galen. Thank you.

  9. Hi Galen,
    I believe that people that were not shown compassion have trouble expressing it. Compassion is who we are, to not be compassionate is a disconnection from God/Source/Love.

  10. Alida--So true. It is not for us to know what happens between God and any other person. We do know, however, that we are charged with loving others as ourselves.

    Alexia--Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I assure you that my first reaction was the same as yours and Karen's! The words you quoted come from A Course in Miracles and they help me shift my perspective so that no matter what someone else does, I can keep my spirit connection, or at least re-establish it more quickly.

    Justin--Recognizing why someone might have difficulty expressing compassion helps us have compassion. Thanks for a helpful observation.

  11. Hmmmm....First off....I think I would find a new minister. to the meat. People....yes, even minister's can be real dolts sometimes. I believe it can take a lifetime to get your muscles where compassion is concerned. You slip and slide and often just fall down in this regard....but it is a fundamental part of being fully "human".



  12. I'd suggest this minister re-read 1 Corinthians 13:2b "if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

    and 13:7 "[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes."

    Compassion is an expression of love.

  13. Hi Galen,

    Brilliant point you are trying to make here. "The real practice occurs when compassion does not spontaneously arise, when aversion or anger or fear has closed our hearts and separated us from someone we have labeled as “other." How do with feel compassion for people who do not arouse kindly feelings within us? Like you I bristled at the minister's unkind words. But when you characterized them as a call for love then my perspective shifted as yours did.

    The practice of compassion is clearly not easy when it comes to people whom we feel are not worthy of it. But then again such judgment is uncalled for and it would not do to practice selective compassion. While I doubt I would even be a saint, the least I could do is to try to shift my perspective as you have wisely shown us and to recognize when someone is calling for love.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  14. Jo--I guess that's why we "practice"! Hopefully we do build up some compassion "muscle."

    Bob--Good verses, both of them. Compassion is certainly an expression of love indeed.

    Irving--It is humbling to realize that when I react with judgment, I am doing the same thing that I am criticizing the minister for doing. It certainly takes the enjoyment out of my self-righteous compassion superiority! Humility helps shift perspective, too.

  15. Wow, I'm going to bite my tongue on this one... if I don't have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all.

    However my heart goes out to the individual who was told that her dad is in hell, she is the one I automatically feel empathy, compassion and love for. You are right, it's easy to feel compassion for this individual and not so much for the minister.

  16. Yeah, if you think about the reasons why a person would choose to relate that way to such an issue, you quickly find they will likely cause a tremendous amount of suffering not only to others but also themselves.

  17. As the writer of the post that inspired this, I thought I would let you know of my perspective of the pastor.

    At the time I was a new follower of Jesus and new to the faith. In my infant state of Christianity, I thought that those that had been believers longer than I had knew better than me.

    Years have gone by and I now am wiser(?) and know that even pastors don't have all the answers. They are just pilgrims as we all are.

    I believe that the pastor believed in his heart that he was speaking the truth to me. He was probably just repeating what he had been taught by other believers around him. It is a very common belief that you must make a decision to follow Jesus before you leave this earth. But that is only partly true. It doesn't take into account the moments between this life and the next - a whole spiritual realm that many of us never give any thought to.

    It also doesn't take into account that not all those who prophesied in His name will be saved. The truth is that none of us really know - only God does.

    I also believe that some people are not wired for compassion as much as others. I believe that this pastor possibly viewed things in black and white and didn't leave room for the grey.

    I have not seen this pastor for over a decade since our conversation and I have learned much since then. Please feel compassion for him as I believe he thought he was speaking to me in truth. I hope that in his journey he himself has since grown. I have already forgiven him. I ask you not to judge him because if you do, you are making a judgement just like he did of the state of my father's heart.

  18. darlin--Yep, that's why we need to "practice"!

    Joe--Your perspective helps unlock our hearts and feel compassion for someone who must be suffering themselves.

    Jo--Thank you so much for sharing your reflections. I didn't realize that this incident happened so long ago. I'm pleased that with time, you have made peace with what happened to your dad and what happened with the pastor. Your willingness and ability to feel compassion for this pastor is a lovely and inspiring expression of love.

    I so agree with you that if we judge him, we are doing exactly the same thing we are criticizing him for. Our own task is to keep our own hearts open and connected--our task is not to judge others.

    I suspect you are right about his black and white views and I don't doubt that he believed what he told you. What is sad, to me, besides the fact that he held these beliefs, is that he could not see past his beliefs to feel and express compassion for you in your time of need. This sadness, unlike anger and judgment, allows me to keep my heart open and to feel compassion for both of you.

    Your story, as you can see from the post and the comments, has offered all of us a chance to see the judgment in our own hearts and to "practice" compassion. Your reflections in this comment reveal more eloquently than I could ever express, the beauty and the power of compassion and forgiveness. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and to urge all of us to follow your lead by extending compassion instead of judgment.

  19. When our next door neighbor lost her father, and asked my dear wife that same question in fear and confusion (because the neighbor is Evangelical by upbringing, and a large measure of allegiance is demanded at all times), this was Mary's reply:

    "Don't worry. God loves your Daddy, even more than you did."

    That is the more important truth, isn't it?

    The minister spoke from his own fears. He deserves to be pitied.

  20. Mikey--Mary's was a lovely and loving answer. I'm going to remember that one for sure. You are right. When we do not speak from love, we speak from fear. And when we can recognize that someone is acting from fear (the basis for a call for love), it is easier to keep our own hearts open and to express compassion and love in return instead of fear and judgment.

  21. Do we know why he stated such a horrific declaration? There maybe a reason, not to hurt the girl, but make her think or consider something. I find it hard that he would be so crass to her in a moment of enlightenment. Ministers are good for making you stop a moment and ponder the meanings of life and question the all mighty.

  22. Galen
    I always have to break down a concept and ask myself is it in my best interest and would I be happier pursuing that line of action. So then the question would be for me would I be happier being a more compassionate person and the answer is yes. If I understand one's ignorance and limitations, I'm more apt to cut them a break and feel closer and more connected. For me (with my overdeveloped left brain) compassion has to be a function of understanding.

  23. I do believe that in the heat of the moment compassion will often escape. I too want to practise having compassion in my life. Since we have been called to be Inner City Missionaries; I have a whole new perspective.
    As for the Heaven and Hell thought, here is what I believe.
    I believe we are all children of our Heavenly Father who loves us. We were nurtured in the Pre-existance. We came to earth to have a body and to experience earth life. Throught the atonement of Jesus Christ we can live again with them. There is a need to repent and do the very best we can. After we leave this life we are in the Spirit World. I believe that we all through Christ will be resurrected. We can be forever families.
    I like the idea of practising compassion and following my Savior's example.
    Also, important is forgiving others and ourselves for our weaknesses.
    Blessings to you for an enlighted post!

  24. You goes with my recent saying: separate the person from the action by becoming in total awareness of the struggle itself. When you do is not the person you see as bad or good, but it is your spirits awareness of the struggle. And while in awareness (not reaction mode) you are not attached to their response or actions because you are aware that everyone is on their own path of learning and discovery. Thank you for this wonderful article :)

  25. Well written. For me it's important to remember that there are many paths to the top of the mountain. What is wrong for me (a hell) could be right for someone else. I think fire and brimstone is fear based and not for me. It works for a lot of others. I especially liked your conclusion.

  26. ryoko--I don't know why he said that, but the daughter's own comment above (Jo Princess Warrior) sheds some light on her view of the incident.

    Riley--Yes, if we can try to imagine the other person's perspective and experience, as you suggest, it's easier to feel compassion.

    LeAnn--Thank you for sharing your own views. Our lives are enriched, I think, when we listen to each other and keep our minds open.

    Kenya--You make an important distinction between awareness and reaction mode. When we can stay in awareness, we are more likely to keep our hearts open and connected.

    Tess--Isn't it wonderful that we have the ability to find the internal structure that makes sense to us? Many paths--one destination.

  27. Wow.

    As one person above mentioned, the minister cannot possibly know if this dying man uttered a prayer for salvation in his last moments of life.

    And because he doesn't know that, he can't possibly know the outcome.

    Again, just wow.

  28. Hey Galen,
    Great post about compassion, I believe some people have trouble expressing their compassion to other people due to being judged in a harsh way! I agree that compassion is power, and true power from God himself! We are beings filled with love and to express it

  29. Chrissy--Yep, wow pretty much says it all.

    Tyler--So true. I believe that judgment comes from fear. It's difficult to feel compassion when you are in fear.

  30. This has made me rethink the death of my father. He met my sons only once - only 2 of them - one was4, one 1. He was 56 years old in a nursing home, dying from a life style of bad choices. He was a taker; not a giver. And, in the few times I visited him and reached out to him, trying to make a connection - I didn't "fee" anything. However, God sent me there, to spend time, to ask one question. And when I left after that visit, I was released; I had done what God sent me to do. He died a few weeks later. It is a sad thing to go to a man's funeral when there is no rejoicing of a life well-lived. It is sad to go as a daughter who was abandoned - and who had no place, really, even in her father's family. Yet, reading this today - I do not know what happened inside of him in those last few weeks of his life. I do not know whether He called out to a Father who had been calling him since he was born. Maybe he did - and maybe he was redeemed. Maybe that one little question caused something to grow into something eternal. I had not really thought about the effects of that question - because nothing happened within the 5 minutes of the question released and the defensive answer given. However, it could have had a ripple effect that had a Tsumani effect on his soul.

    I am so glad I stopped by from Ann's; You have just shifted my perspective.

  31. Blue--Thank you for sharing your story and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I'm so pleased if this post brought you some peace in your perspective.


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