Faith seeking understanding

God's gift - human flourishing 'from the inside'

At Christmas we remember and rejoice that God is a God of love, compassion and empathy, who understands our daily struggles, and who hears our cries for help. Scott Harrower reflects.

By Scott Harrower

December 10 2017We have a compassionate and helpful God. At Christmas we celebrate the fact that God’s love motivated him to offer us a life of ongoing peace with him. God offers us a rich kind of peace: it has to do with fullness of life, wholesomeness and flourishing. This kind of flourishing is never-ending: human beings grow, develop and have a future beyond death when they are at peace with God.

Prayer is a very important part of teeming with life in company with God. In prayer we relate to the maker of all things. We speak to God and hear from him as Christians have done so for two thousand years. The dynamic communication we call prayer also has a renewing effect on us: the Spirit of Christ gradually changes us so that we may perceive the way things are more clearly and thus be more helpfully engaged in the world.

What we remember at Christmas – the incarnation of God the Son – is strongly related to our ability to pray meaningfully and to be heard well by God. The incarnation means that God can understand “from the inside” what it is like to grapple with the everyday frustrations and struggles about which we pray.

Jesus of Nazareth experienced what it is like to go through the natural development that takes us from being a child to being an adult. Like all children and teenagers he grew in wisdom as he learned to navigate the world (Luke 2:52). Hebrews 5:7-8 records that this was hard for him, and a difficult time, as it is for you and I: “During the years of his earthly life, he offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death… Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Today we pray to God in full confidence that his knowledge of the human struggle means that he can empathise with us in many ways. Tears and cries make sense to him, they are not unknown. Our struggle to be obedient to God is not met with disinterest or mere indignation: it is met with the compassion and understanding that are only possible for a God who experienced life in our nature.

For this reason, as Hebrews records for us, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses but one who has been tempted in every way as we are” (4:15). The practical application of this is to pray in the existential context of peace with God: “therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy to help us in time of need” (4:16).

I was reminded of God’s empathy and compassion last month during a wonderful Spanish speaking service at the Anglican Cathedral in Boston, USA. Gathered around in a circle, we were welcomed, we sang, and heard of God’s compassion for us. The priest spoke of Jesus’ perspective on the crowds he encountered during his teaching ministry. He noted Jesus’ compassion on them: he experienced “passions” or emotions of care and concern for them.

The sermon led into a time of prayer in which we could pray out loud as well as read out prayers for the world, those near to us and those far away. People from Colombia, Spain, El Salvador, Argentina, the Dominican republic, Mexico, Italy and Brazil were there: each had their own stories of struggle, pain and loss, yet each voice was encouraged to pray to Jesus. We prayed genuinely to God in the confidence that he understood us.

After the service I had an experience that confirmed that he understood us. I was led to speak to a person who had recently had a powerful experience of Jesus and was trying to connect the dots between the greatness of Jesus, his everyday life, and some concerns he was carrying on his shoulders.

The ensuing conversation showed me that God not only hears the particular contours of our prayers, but that he empathises with us to the extent that he also knows what is helpful for our situation. In this instance, God cared for a South American through an Australian who had got lost on his way to his hotel in Boston.

My concerns that morning were different from those of the person I helped out after the service. My main concern was how to get to my hotel, an hour’s walk from the train station. I prayed about it and used maps as well as my limited abilities and lack of Wi-Fi would allow me. Thankfully, God is fully aware of my geographical struggles so he also helped me through his people. The only way I got to my hotel was through the help of other Christians – whenever I came across Anglican or Episcopalian churches I would go in and ask for help. They helped me, mediating and reflecting God’s care and compassion for me.

The ‘take away’ here for Christmas is to appreciatively engage with the empathetic God. At Christmas we remember and live in the light of the empathy of God. This resonates with one of the many songs of praise offered up to God around the time of the birth of Jesus: “Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).

The Revd Dr Scott Harrower is Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College, Melbourne.