One of the things that most “makes us human” is emotional empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. However, there’s another kind of empathy we all know equally well: involuntary empathy. This is what happens when we see someone else experiencing something painful, like placing their hand on a hot stove, or stubbing their toe – and we feel the same thing!
This phenomenon is caused by “mirror neurons,” a distinctive class of brain cells that fire when we perform an action, and when we see someone else perform that action. They explain why we’re able to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions so immediately and instinctively – because those thoughts, feelings, and reactions are mirrored within us.
Reading about these amazing cells reminded me of another set of “mirror neurons” we have: our spiritual ones. We are each created in God’s image, which means that everyone we meet is, in their own unique way, a mirror image of their Creator.
The difficult part about this is that we each reflect this image to greater or lesser degrees. It can be extremely difficult to believe that God’s image is being reflected within people who commit overtly evil acts, or are living within difficult or questionable circumstances.
And yet, we see in Christ’s life and words that the circumstances or actions of those around him were never enough to stop him from seeing the image of God within them, and activating his own “spiritual mirror neurons” to extend to them the love and redemption of the triune God. In the Sermon on the Mount, he puts it like this:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?’ … “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37-40 NIV).
This was how Christ lived: as if everyone around him bore the image of God. That’s the example he calls us to follow: one where we pray for our enemies, turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile. By seeing God’s image in others and responding in selfless love, as he did, a beautiful process takes place: sanctification, through which we each begin to mirror God more fully and clearly ourselves.
I’m Joseph Tkach, Speaking of LIFE.