I heard about a recent episode of “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, where a social experiment was conducted to measure compassion. The experiment was to be conducted three times with the same group of people. And participants were to be paid separately upon the successful completion of each stage of the experiment.
For the first round, the subjects were asked to sign in at a reception desk, then enter through a closed door into a small room and sit at a counter. In front of the counter was a window that they were told was a two-way mirror; anyone looking through from the other side couldn’t see them, but they could see who was on the other side.
On the counter in front of the subjects was a tray containing a small bowl of chilli, and three bottles of hot sauce, labelled from left to right: “Mild,” “Medium”, and “DEATH!!”
The three were instructed to season their bowl of chilli with their choice of hot sauce. The seasoned chilli would then be given to another subject sitting opposite them on the other side of the glass, who would then have to eat all three bowls of chilli. Because here’s the catch:
The person receiving the bowl of seasoned chilli would have to finish the bowls if he or she were to be paid for that stage of the experiment. If they couldn’t eat all the bowls, everyone would leave empty-handed for that stage.
As you can imagine, for the first time, the group came in and dropped a few drops of the mild sauce into the bowl, and proceeded to watch the other guy eat the chilli. Easy! These people were nice! Or probably just motivated by getting paid, right?
But for the second round, the experiment changed a bit: Between the time the test subjects registered and got to the counter with the choice of hot sauce, they were hassled. A big, strong man walked through the room, head buried in his phone, and practically walked through each one of them. Not only that, he then blamed them! “Watch it, buddy!” “Two lanes!!!” he said rudely.
The disturbed, disrupted, subjects entered the room and followed the instructions to heat the chilli. But not before looking through the glass and seeing ‘mr.big and rude’ sitting there! He was going to have to eat their seasoned chilli, or suffer the consequences – no paycheque!
No one chose “mild.” At least one grinned wickedly as he poured “DEATH” on the chilli. They were getting their revenge. None of them were showing any compassion whatsoever. They didn’t care about getting paid. No one did.
In the third and final round of the experiment, ‘mr.big and rude’ did his thing again. This time he upped the ante with personally offensive comments aimed individually at the subjects waiting in the reception room.
But between the offensive words and the hot sauce, the instructor welcomed kindly each subject with a smile and a compliment. Each was offered a glass of water. And the instructor asked if they were comfortable and ready to begin.
When ready, the man they might have wanted to burn entered the room before them. What sauce do you think they chose? Most chose the ‘medium’ hot sauce. It seems the main difference this time was accounted for by the instructor’s insertion of compassion into the experiment. This compassion tempered, if just a little, their desire for revenge.
A smile, a glass of water, and a compliment. Small and seemingly insignificant acts make a difference, either way. Like a contagion, our behaviour affects the lives of others with whom we come into contact. Even a random act of kindness can breed more compassion in the world.
I suspect when we read a text from the bible like Saint Paul’s in his letter to the Philippians, our first thoughts are heaven-bound. He writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (chapter 1, v.21). ‘Dying is gain’, in other words, means ‘heaven’.
We would be like the hungry Israelites wandering through the desert but motivated solely by the goal of the “Promised Land”. The Christian life, therefore, would have very little to do with the challenges of the world in which we live. Leave that for the politicians and social workers, right? “Ours is a heavenly kingdom!”
You’ve heard the argument, I am sure: When it comes to caring for suffering people, working for justice for all, tending to our fragile environment — these things are not a priority because we’re in the business of ‘saving souls’ for ‘heaven’ nothing more nothing less. The assurance of our salvation in Christ can lead us very easily into a mistaken disengagement with the world. This echoes the gnostic heresy from the early centuries, whereby ‘spiritual’ folk held a contempt and disregard for anything ‘in the flesh’.
“I am just going to hide in my corner, here, ignoring the plight of others. As long as I can eek out a comfortable existence for myself and people I want to love, then who cares about everyone else. I don’t want to bother because I am scared. And I am going to heaven, anyway. What’s the point of it all?”
Well, the point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is very much about living in the world, faithfully. While the Israelites lived in the hope of arriving at the Promised Land, God did not ignore their plight, and sent them food and water (Exodus 16:2-15).
The second half of the first chapter to the Philippian church is all about how to live with one another in this world, not the next. There’s no mention at all of heaven in the first chapter after Paul decides to “remain in the flesh … for you” (v.24). Rather, Paul emphasizes: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (v.27) and calls the church to live in harmony with one another, in order to bear faithful witness to the world.
Especially when I meet with people in the second half of their life, the subject of our conversation often revolves around the purpose of their lives. They may have come through a difficult time, survived a risky operation, experienced a miracle of healing, or simply lived a very long life — and they wonder why God still keeps them around despite their ill health or age or whatever limitations they face.
And then I think of Paul’s message that, even though he suffers, he doesn’t give up because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Moses and the Israelites in the desert, wandering, hungry, complaining — and they don’t give up, because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Jesus who while suffering death on the cross still prayed that God would forgive the world (Luke 23:34). He doesn’t give up, right to his tortured end, because this life on earth matters.
When, like in the ‘Brain Game’ experiment, a focus and unity of active love towards others — however small the action — can make a difference in world, then our life has a great purpose.
What’s the point of it all? The purpose of our lives is to show love to others, and our behaviour affects the world in ways we can’t always measure or see right away. But affect it, it does! Even in the midst of our suffering. Even though it isn’t easy.
When the 30-year-old rock group U2 partnered with Apple they did something never before done: A couple of weeks ago U2 released their new album free of charge, if you have an iTunes account. Whether or not you wanted this new album, it was automatically downloaded into your playlist.
At first, as you can imagine, the reaction was mildly positive. Fans say the album is ok to good. And, hey, it was free! But the backlash has escalated after the first week of its release. Why? The last time U2 released a new album a few years ago, five million people bought it. Now, there are some 500 million (half a billion) users of Apple’s iTunes. That means, assuming that approximately 5 million worldwide would have purchased this new album, that leaves some 450 million people who would very likely not really want it.
This action for most may very well be an imposition. It is an intrusion into someone’s personal collection of music, like an unwanted guest. And who likes that?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be disruptive to our lives. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may call us out of our comfort zones. Our baptism in Christ calls us out of our selfish kingdoms justified by a ‘heaven-centred’ theology that may minimize the importance of life on earth, in the flesh. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may intrude into our hearts, yes. God’s call may at first feel like an unwanted guest, and create an inconvenience for us.
But God places immeasurable value in this created world, including you. On that first Christmas when God entered this fleshly existence as a human being, God demonstrated just how much God loves what He creates. A perfect world? No. A sinful world, yes. But to a world where we are freed to love all, with small acts of kindness and generosity and grace, every day? —
This lovely intrusion makes life on earth a worthwhile adventure.
Thanks to Rev Margo Whittaker for the ‘Brain Games’ illustration