Starting with Empathy

The Backstory

I was leaving a restaurant last week after a breakfast meeting. Walking toward my car in the parking lot, I noticed a sleek, new Honda Ridgeline parked nearby. My admiration quickly faded however, when I noticed that it was parked diagonally across two spaces.

I wasn’t a fan.

“How important does a person have to think they are to intentionally take up two parking spaces?” I asked myself. “Is that truck so special that it should prevent another patron from using an available space?”

As I stood there silently berating the truck owner, an older couple approached from behind having just come out of the restaurant. The wife steadied herself with a cane, her husband firmly holding her free hand to support her. They slowly and carefully made their way to the Ridgeline. The husband opened the passenger side door as wide as it would go (the reason he took up two parking spaces) and helped his wife into the truck.

As I watched the couple leave the lot, I whispered to myself, “Well, that changes things.” Then I thought, “Why didn’t you allow from the start that there may have been a good reason the truck was parked the way it was? Why did you begin by thinking the worst, assuming you knew someone’s motives when you really didn’t have a clue?”

That experience reminded me of an important principle: Knowing the backstory makes all the difference. Had I known about the wife’s condition and her husband’s desire to make life a little easier for her, I would have regarded the angle-parked pickup with respect rather than annoyance.

I hope to do better in the future.

What This Says

The backstory principle also speaks to the way we view the pursuit of faith. For the one pursuing faith, it’s important to understand why you’re where you are and what obstacles you’re dealing with as you seek God. For the observer, it’s important to understand that many people who are pursuing faith are doing so from vastly different backgrounds and experiences.

As I’ve written before, my coming to faith in God was a relatively smooth and seamless process. And while I’ve read and studied for decades in order to own my faith personally, I’ve never had much reason to question it. Because of this, there was a time when I assumed that everyone else’s faith journey was or should be similar to mine. I wasn’t very patient or empathetic toward people who struggled with issues of faith, people who doubted, and disagreed, and asked questions. They struck me as rebellious and disobedient.

I think differently about that now.

Who This Affects

I want to show genuine respect and deference to people whose backstory isn’t like mine. People who pursue faith in God from a different history. I want empathy and understanding to be my default at the starting gate. I want to acknowledge that the person who thinks differently than me about God, or the church, or Scripture has his or her reasons for doing so.

I want to recognize that some people, to their credit, are pursuing faith in God even though their early experiences with faith and people of faith have been hurtful. I’m thinking of a Christian woman I know whose father was a highly respected minister, but also a danger to his family. One minute he was verbally and physically abusing his wife and children. The next he was on his way out the door to lead a service at church. Would a child who grew up in such an environment struggle to trust God as “Father?” It’s likely. Might that have an impact on the way that child, as an adult, views biblical teaching on authority? Also likely. As my friend pursues faith, she demonstrates an amazing amount of courage and love for God even as she grapples with her traumatic past.

I know people of color who have faced prejudice and racism throughout their lives. And I can imagine that coming to faith within a religious system that seemed oblivious to this would be no small challenge. I’ve never had to stand in a checkout line and wonder if the customer behind me hates me simply because my skin is a different color. I’ve never had to sit down with my children and explain that there are certain things they must do and say—and certain things they must never do and say—in certain contexts because of the color of their skin. I want to understand how a backstory like this could make a person skeptical—even fearful—of a religious system that in some cases preached spiritual freedom while creating barriers to their acceptance and advancement in society.

I know Millennials who have lots of questions about God, the Bible, and the church. They’re not asking to stir up trouble. They’re asking to get answers. And at this stage in their journey, “Because the Bible says so” isn’t convincing. Many don’t yet know how they view the Bible, so quoting it to them as authority seems like circular reasoning. Because I want searching Millennials to trust God, the Scriptures, and the church, I want to know their backstory and communicate with them based on it. What’s their history with the church and with Christians? What questions would they like to ask and what doubts would they like to express without being attacked or insulted? 

Here’s the bottom line. What is true about God, about the Bible, and about the church is simply that—the truth. I’m not suggesting that truth can be compromised. But I am suggesting that as we interact with people who are seeking truth in the pursuit of faith, we should ask ourselves, “Why does my friend think the way he or she does? What about this person’s past may have led them to where they are today?” And, “How can I talk with this person about faith in a way that shows respect and honor as we seek God together?”

If you’re struggling in your pursuit of faith, and if you think it would be helpful, I’d be honored to hear your backstory. To get a sense of where you’re coming from and how your past may be influencing your pursuit of faith today. Maybe that will lead us to more conversations and maybe, just maybe, toward a clearer path to faith in God.