Sitting with God's Heart: An Exercise in Empathy
It has now been eleven months or longer, depending on where you are in the world, of wading through the COVID-19 pandemic. For years longer than that, we have struggled with economic disparity, unnecessary violence, political polarization, and, yes—still—issues of justice, race, class, gender, and the list goes on. Every day, we are called to summon courage and strength as we personally respond to the clanging cymbals and noise of this world while at the same time seeking the quiet and comfort of being with God. Even though what I may do every day seems the same from the outside, it does not feel the same from the inside. Am I doing enough? Do I have my mask? Did I forget anything? Whom should I reach out to today? How is all of this still happening?
In the flurry of those questions, you can be intentional about setting time aside for yourself and for youth in your ministry. Feel free to follow this script and make it your own, so that the youth in your ministry context have the chance to breathe, reflect, look for God in the midst of chaos, and decide what they will do in reaction to injustice.
This can be done in person or online. Begin your gathering with whatever is the usual pattern for your ministry, then say something like:
“Today we are going to take some time to pause and reflect. There may be things that keep you from being fully present in this time or prayer. Breathe in, breathe out – and set those distracting things to the side, even if just for a few sacred moments. Allow you heart and your mind to intentionally focus on your breath and the prayers that we are about to share. Breathe in with purpose and breathe out distraction and find yourself in a comfortable position.”
“Allow me to pray for us…”
New every morning is your love, great God of light,
and all day long you are
working for good in the world.
Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live
peacefully with our neighbors
and all your creation,
and to devote each day
to your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now read or invite a youth to read Psalm 73.
PSALM 73 (CEB)
1Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who have a pure heart.
2But me? My feet had almost stumbled;
my steps had nearly slipped
3 because I envied the arrogant;
I observed how the wicked are well off:
4They suffer no pain;
their bodies are fit and strong.
5They are never in trouble;
they aren’t weighed down like other people.
6That’s why they wear arrogance like a necklace,
why violence covers them like clothes.
7Their eyes bulge out from eating so well;
their hearts overflow with delusions.
8They scoff and talk so cruel;
from their privileged positions
they plan oppression.
9Their mouths dare to speak against heaven!
Their tongues roam the earth!
10That’s why people keep going back to them,
keep approving what they say.
11And what they say is this: “How could God possibly know!
Does the Most High know anything at all!”
12Look at these wicked ones,
always relaxed, piling up the wealth!
13Meanwhile, I’ve kept my heart pure for no good reason;
I’ve washed my hands to stay innocent for nothing.
14I’m weighed down all day long.
I’m punished every morning.
15If I said, “I will talk about all this,”
I would have been unfaithful to your children.
16But when I tried to understand these things,
it just seemed like hard work
17 until I entered God’s sanctuary
and understood what would happen to the wicked.
18You will definitely put them on a slippery path;
you will make them fall into ruin!
19How quickly they are devastated,
utterly destroyed by terrors!
20As quickly as a dream departs from someone waking up, my Lord,
when you are stirred up, you make them disappear.
21 When my heart was bitter,
when I was all cut up inside,
22I was stupid and ignorant.
I acted like nothing but an animal toward you.
23But I was still always with you!
You held my strong hand!
24You have guided me with your advice;
later you will receive me with glory.
25Do I have anyone else in heaven?
There’s nothing on earth I desire except you.
26My body and my heart fail,
but God is my heart’s rock and my share forever.
27 Look! Those far from you die;
you annihilate all those who are unfaithful to you.
28But me? It’s good for me to be near God.
I have taken my refuge in you, my Lord God,
so I can talk all about your works!
This is the word of life for us.
Thanks be to God.
Reflection Questions on the Psalm:
- Considering verses 4-9, can you think of examples today of the “wicked being well off”? Does this seem as unfair to us as it seems to the writer of the Psalm?
- If the “wicked” can be better off than the “good,” then why be good at all?
- In verses 21-28, the writer mentions how taking refuge in God changed how he sees the world, and he understands what it means to be faithful. Have you had experiences where you thought one thing, and then after sitting with God (or talking it over with friends or pastors or leaders at church), came to think about that thing differently?
Say something like, “Often, we can look at this world and think that something is unfair or unjust; that the world just doesn’t look like God would want it to. When we see injustice around us, we should feel called to act. Psalm 73 does an incredible job of demonstrating feelings that might get us moving. Let’s read a little from the minor prophet Habakkuk to add to those feelings from Psalm 73 and help us understand how important it is to keep our eyes open, to look for God in the chaos, and to position ourselves to pray and reflect on why we feel what we feel, as we prepare to act against injustice and unfairness.”
Spiritual Practice – Sitting with God’s Heart
Say something like:
“I invite us now to consider the spiritual practice of witness. I’ll invite you into a practice that joins the ideas of cultural and Christian witness through six prompts. But first, hear these words from the prophet Habakkuk.”
Habakkuk 1:2-5 (CEB)
The prophet complains
2Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you don’t deliver us.
3Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish
so that devastation and violence are before me?
There is strife, and conflict abounds.
4 The Instruction is ineffective.
Justice does not endure
because the wicked surround the righteous.
Justice becomes warped.
The Lord responds
5Look among the nations and watch!
Be astonished and stare
because something is happening in your days
that you wouldn’t believe even if told.
Reflection Questions on Habakkuk:
Have you recognized and been troubled by injustice or violence or unfairness in the world?
- Where and when?
- Can you give details about how it made you feel and why?
Can you think of a time when you have asked questions of God, as Habakkuk did?
- (Why do you make me see such wrongdoing and look at trouble in the world?)
- (Why do these terrible things haunt my vision?)
- (Why do I dwell on what is wrong with the world?)
- (How can I be a witness for God’s goodness or presence in the midst of so much injustice and suffering?)
Say something like:
Using a piece of paper, fold the paper in half the long way, then into thirds, creating six sections. You can also draw six sections if you like, so that your paper looks like a windowpane. This will be your witness and reflection record.
In one square, write, “I saw.” Detail what, when, who, and where of an incident that made you have some of Habakkuk’s questions.
In another square, write “I heard.” List details about specific words, tones, and sounds or even different versions of the same incident and how they complement or disagree with each other.
In a third square, write “I felt.” List the feelings that arise in you because of the incident. There is no judgment; this is your personal reaction.
Give as much time as is needed; generally, five to ten minutes should be adequate to complete the first three squares.
Now, say something like:
“The remaining squares can be filled in only after you sit and reflect on what you saw, heard, and felt. This mirrors the exchange between Habakkuk and the Lord at the beginning of Habakkuk, Chapter 2:
Habakkuk 2:1-3 (CEB)
I will take my post;
I will position myself on the fortress.
I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me
and how he will respond to my complaint.
The Lord responds
2Then the Lord answered me and said,
Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet
so that a runner can read it.
3 There is still a vision for the appointed time;
it testifies to the end;
it does not deceive.
In the midst of suffering and injustice, Habakkuk puts himself into a position where he can see what God is doing so that he can share it with others. He sits with the heart of God and looks for how God still moves in the midst of chaos and injustice. And the Lord responds to his plan to witness by making sure that Habakkuk writes down what he witnesses clearly, because God is doing something amazing that even firsthand witnesses would not believe, even if they were told.
For the world around us, to be a witness is to see and then share a personal experience. For Christians, to be a witness is to share our faith through words and actions.
Habakkuk was writing while living in Jerusalem, and he can see the Babylonians closing in to conquer the city and the people who live there. Habakkuk is looking for God in the middle of that pain and suffering and injustice. We may feel like we live in a world of constant threats and grave injustice, so it would be natural for us to ask Habakkuk’s questions, especially if we have God’s heart.
Jesus says the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your being, and with all your mind . . . You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39 CEB). So, it is natural in our spiritual lives and in our prayers to ask for God’s heart, to be able to understand and express God’s love to the world. Love is good; it never ends; it feels good to express love to others. Yet, having the heart of God and expressing love does not mean we get to be in a place of happiness all the time. There are so many psalms crying out because God never promised that having God’s heart would be easy.
Habakkuk asks, “Why does God make me see wrongdoing and suffering?” We may ask ourselves the same question. One possible answer is that, well, because we asked for it. As Christians, we asked to share in the heart of God because we try and live like Jesus. Seeking the heart of God and committing ourselves to ultimate love means that we will be touched by evil and injustice and the pain of this world. That doesn’t just mean we only get to see goodness and beauty. It does mean that we will more readily notice evil, and injustice, and pain because of the relationship we have with God! Having perfect love does not close us off to what is broken. In fact, loving as God loves means hurting as God hurts too.
One of the eternal gifts we receive from God is the chance to experience times and places where God is sharing God’s heart. The intense sense of chaos and division around us means that we are more readily witnessing evil and injustice. When you witness how people are being left behind and forgotten, when you see people fall victim to injustice and violence, you may ask, “How long, O God?” We feel these things because we have a share of God’s heart.
In the remaining squares on your page, write “I will pray; I will say; I will do.” Fill these in as you sit with the heart of God and take time to carefully and prayerfully decide how you will be a Christian witness to the injustices of the world that trouble your soul.
Habakkuk was troubled by the violence he witnessed. He prayed and decided to set up his watch, to be on the lookout for what God was doing.
You’ve seen injustice. God has troubled you with how things are in the world. Take heart, because injustice, suffering, pain, and violence are supposed to bother you. They are supposed to make you uncomfortable and ask questions. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t really be sharing in the heart of God. We believe that God redeems this world (God doesn’t cause injustice or bring on violence; that’s not part of God’s plan – if you use plan language.) However, God does allow these things to be redeemed, so we can each take heart and be encouraged! After all, God is working for the redemption of the world! Part of the Good News is that we get to be first-hand witnesses (2 Corinthians 5:18) in that process. So we have the incredible opportunity to watch for what God is up to now!
Allow time for students to fill in their squares and to discuss those things that are pressing on their hearts. If time allows, invite students to share their prayers, the issues that are bothering them, and what they may feel called to do about those issues. Perhaps there is enough energy around a single issue or topic that your youth ministry may want to work collectively to address it.
Close your time together in whatever manner is usual for your group.
Verses marked CEB are from the Common English Bible. Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible