Compare or Empathize?
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them . . . Hebrews 13:3
I get my hair cut at one of those places in the mall, and every time I go, I drive right by a smoke shop. I’m not proud of this, but when I see customers going in and out of the smoke shop, I’m judgmental. I’m not simply referring to a recognition that smoking is unhealthy. That may be appropriate. I’m talking about a comparison. I look at them and I feel superior. Look at your poor life choices. I might not be perfect, but at least I don’t smoke. I’m often tempted to do this kind of thing. When I see those in clinic, treatment, or jail who simply make one terrible choice after another, it’s easy to look down on them. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you recover like me? Do you like jail? Get used to it.
I expect I’m not alone here. I can write about being condescending towards those who smoke because, unless you smoke, you likely feel the same way. I can write about feeling morally superior to those in jail because, unless you’ve been in jail, you’ve likely had the same thoughts. It’s easy to look down on those who struggle worse or differently than we do. Yes, we may have our struggles, but at least we don’t smoke, do drugs, or go to jail. When we compare ourselves to those whom we view as worse than us, we feel better about ourselves.
Today’s passage though, commands empathy instead of comparison. In it, the author of Hebrews said to remember those in prison, feeling their plight. He may have been referring to those imprisoned for their faith, but the instruction stands. We must recognize that those who’re struggling are not that much different than us. We must see our failures in their failures and choose to understand something of what they’re going through.
When I hear an addict talk about wanting to stop, but not being able to do so, I can condescend to his stupidity. Or, I can remember when I was right there, doing the same thing. I can recognize that I still do the same thing with chocolate chips. It’s not the exact same, but I still have struggles. I’m not perfect and dismissing my failures because they’re not as bad as his isn’t helpful to anyone.
We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). We all struggle with something. This doesn’t mean we can’t recognize destructive behavior as destructive. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to change ourselves or help others. It simply means that when we see others struggling, we should empathize instead of compare.