It is often said that we should “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” before we pass judgment or give advice. This is extremely sound advice. In Thomas Dubay’s excellent book on community life, Caring: A Biblical Theology of Community, he adjusts the phrase to putting yourself in someone’s skin, which I think is even more personal than temporarily inhabiting their shoes.
When does one person really care for the other – as distinguished from seeking oneself under guise of altruism? The best way I can summarize what I sense to be the New Testament concept is to use an inelegant expression: to care is to jump into the other’s skin. It is to become the other in mind and heart, to live the other’s interests. To care is to become one’s brother, one’s sister.
Caring in Christian community is expressed biblically in a number of ways. The disciple looks out for his brother’s welfare as he looks out for his own. Paul can assert that it is his heart’s desire that his Jewish compatriots be saved (Rm 10:1). The apostle’s own peace of mind is possible only upon his hearing that the Thessalonians are still strong in their faith. This living in the brother’s skin is well brought out in the translation of NEB: “It is the breath of life to us that you stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thess 3:8). Paul wants everyone to try to please his neighbor (Rm 15:2) and to look after the other’s interests rather than his own (Phil 2:4). Everything is to be done in love (1 Cor 16:14).
Caring implies inliving. Two who love enjoy a mutual inbeing. They live in each other through thought and love. More than once Paul tells his brothers that they dwell in his heart (2 Cor 7:3, 1 Thess 2:17, Phil 1:7) and even that they are to make room for him in their hearts (2 Cor 7:2). Spacial distance does not prevent the apostle from being spiritually present to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:3-4). Persons in community are vibrantly present to one another. A mere formality will never do.
When it comes to dealing with each other’s issues, it can be easy to mentally, intellectually run through a person’s situation and provide an obvious answer. One might even get frustrated when the other person doesn’t suddenly jump up with excitement and run to immediately follow the sound advice.
The intellectual answer may be perfectly sound and logical, but it often lacks a connection to the heart of the situation, to the heart of the person(s) involved.
Mom has a misbehaving child? Obviously they should be grounded. But maybe she’s a single mother who doesn’t get much time with her child and doesn’t want to lose time together by sending the unruly child to their room alone.
Someone has been physically or emotionally abused? Obviously you should forgive and reconcile regardless of how you feel. Perhaps, though, they literally tremble in fear or burst into tears when near the person who hurt them. Of course, forgiveness and reconciliation is the goal, but getting there may be a long road.
If you think I’m making these things up, think again. I’ve seen this happen many times.
The problem with plain, vanilla answers and advice to issues is that most people are not plain vanilla. Each person is a complex mix of desires, hopes, ambitions, fears, feelings, and a history of good and bad and many times horrible experiences that make them who they are today.
So if pat answers aren’t really any answer at all, what are we to do with each other’s struggles?
We get inside each others’ skin. We see the world through their eyes and ears. We feel the world through their heart.
This is a key component to any relationship that goes beyond surface level.
It takes time and can be difficult to set ourselves aside, yet this is what a true friend does.
Consider Jesus. Jesus emptied Himself and fully inhabited our human experience.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
Jesus constantly felt and showed compassion to others.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them … (Matt. 9:36)
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matt. 14:14)
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. … Jesus wept. (Jn. 11:33, 35)
But how do we embody someone else’s struggles?
The best answer I know of is to do it in relationship. Walk in their skin by walking right beside them. Get close to them. And most importantly, serve them.
Let your time together be about them, not about you.
Become their #1 fan and cheerleader.
Remind them of who they are in Christ, Who is our greatest reality. He is Truth, and in Him we find the Truth of who we really are. And it is often the first thing we forget when we are struggling with something.
In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Or in other words, no one is going to listen to you until you have listened to them first. This mutual listening best transpires in the context of living life together.
Rather than sitting down to hash out the issue at hand, just spend time with them… with no agenda. If certain issues don’t come up, let it go. Don’t force your opinions if they aren’t sought out. Trust Jesus.
Breathe the life of Christ together in their midst. Simply living through Him in the presence of others will stir the Spirit in them and open doorways that Christ may walk through.
Here’s what I’m not saying:
Ignore all issues that are uncomfortable.
Never confront anyone.
Ignore a person’s sin so you are never considered judgmental.
I’m focusing more on the method in which that confrontation takes place and is walked out.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 7:12)
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:39)
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)
In my experience, pointing others to Christ and allowing Him to work often resolves the situation. Or, through sharing His life together, the issue comes up in a natural way and is addressed through a dialog together that is mutually beneficial.
Listening is an act of love. Or as Dubay wrote, “A caring community is a listening community.”
Get in someone’s skin today…
Follow the Life!
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