By Bret Bernhardt
When was the last time you felt compassion in your work on the Hill?
This challenge shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially if you’ve ever spent time answering calls as a staff assistant. Or try listening to a constituent’s opinion as a legislative correspondent or a legislative assistant.
And try working with a difficult person for months as a caseworker, not to mention our interactions with our fellow staffers.
What might have started out as compassion tends to, more often than not, quickly revert to annoyance or, worse, outright hostility. In fact, compassion may be the last thing you might feel after another trying call with an outraged constituent.
These instances, and we’ve experienced many of them, are often filled with the opposite emotions of anger, fear, and invective. So how is it that compassion would ever enter my thinking during the workday?
After all, these people aren’t even “deserving.”
This is certainly true until we see that compassion was at the core of Jesus’s ministry. And if it is the heart of Jesus, I want it to be my heart as well.
If we look at the problems in our culture, and on the Hill, it can be summed up as a heart issue. That is, a hardening of the heart. A right relationship with the Lord is characterized by the condition of our heart.
The best way to look at this is to see how Jesus conditioned his own heart. It came through a nurtured relationship with God the Father and fellowship with Him.
A key manifestation of a right heart is our attitude toward others. This, I believe, is best displayed in our compassion, or empathy, toward others.
“We seem to be a nation of lost and hurting people. And for various reasons, they frequently come in contact with us in Hill offices.”
We seem to be a nation of lost and hurting people. And for various reasons, they frequently come in contact with us in Hill offices. You, in whatever capacity you serve, are in a unique position to minister to them. In so doing, you fulfill the will of God in your life.
We see this beautifully described in Mark 1:39-41, in Jesus’s response to the leper’s agony and desire for healing in pleading, “if you will, you can make me clean.”
Jesus was filled with compassion. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leper was healed.
Various translations will use pity or sympathy to describe Jesus’s heart toward the lost and hurting, but it often preceded an action on His part, including miracles.
Work on the Hill is probably marked more by callousness than compassion, so how could the raw emotion of compassion break through?
That’s where the Spirit of the Lord comes in.
“If we look at the problems in our culture, and on the Hill, it can be summed up as a heart issue. That is, a hardening of the heart.”
Have you ever been moved, sometimes with tears, by something you’ve seen, read, or observed. If so, you’ve experienced the empathetic emotion of compassion. For a moment, you’ve placed yourself in the position of someone else in need.
Now, what did you do with that emotion? Like most of us, it was likely a precious but fleeting moment, not producing an action. However, think on those times it did produce an action and, no doubt, it was thus a memorable experience.
A few years back, I was going through a particularly difficult time at work in the Senate. My emotions were pretty raw and I was uncharacteristically empathetic towards others.
It happened to be Veterans Day and my wife and I decided to take a walk on the mall, not really realizing what day it was. It just happened to be a beautiful fall afternoon.
The night before, my son and I watched a program called “Vietnam in HD” on the History Channel. The program told the story of the Vietnam War through the eyes of the soldiers on the ground, using their own home movies.
One story in particular was compelling. It was told by a soldier who was the first in his squad to reach the summit of what was known as Hamburger Hill.
Following the traumatic details of taking the hill, he then described coming home not long after.
He wore his uniform on the flight home, proud to have served his country. After landing stateside and being seated in the airport terminal, he realized no one was willing to sit next to him.
“At that moment, as if lighting struck my heart, I made a beeline to him and bear-hugged him saying, “welcome home, we love you!” We both stood sobbing as we embraced.”
The opposition to the war had so stigmatized the soldiers coming home that they were too often persona non grata. Instead of gratitude upon his return, he was met with protests.
But the most compelling part of his story wasn’t his words; it was his broken heart as tears streamed down his face reliving the events of coming home.
It was at that moment I was overtaken with love and compassion for a man who had given so much of himself for others and me.
The next day, on our walk along the mall, as God would have it, I amazingly spotted this guy among the throngs of people at the Vietnam memorial.
At that moment, as if lighting struck my heart, I made a beeline to him and bear-hugged him saying, “welcome home, we love you!” We both stood sobbing as we embraced. Standing in amazement at my rare display of emotion was my wife saying, “He never does this.”
It turns out this was his first visit to the memorial, as it was too painful to come before that day. He told himself he wasn’t going to cry and I “apologized” for my part in bringing on the tears.
It was a moment I’ll never forget. All brought on by what moved Jesus to bring healing to people. Filled by the Holy Spirit, His compassion compelled Him to action.
Being open to the Holy Spirit allows our hearts to be touched. Compassion flourishes in a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” — Galatians 5:22-23
You too can allow Him to touch your heart. Jesus said, “I am willing.” We must be willing if we want Him to change our hearts toward others as we go about our work on the Hill.
Bret Bernhardt served on the Hill as chief of staff to senators Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He is now a member of the board of directors of Faith & Law and the Conservative Partnership Institute.
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