More Than Tools

Thinking Beyond Empathy

This coming week I’ll be speaking at a conference about the topic of empathy building. It is a wonderful opportunity to discuss, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere, ideas on how we can all increase the amount of empathy we have and experience in relationships. As I’ve had the pleasure of meeting other speakers and hearing from the organizers I am struck by their desire for a better world. They have all come to empathy as the way to change the world they are in. Maybe to avoid or prevent pain, maybe to help others experience goodness the way they have. Empathy is the focus, with what seems to be an underlying assumption that as we increase empathy, relationships change for the good, and as relationships change so too does the world.

Empathy is an amazing relational tool, and it may indeed point to a different kind of world as more and more people use it for good. However, I would offer that without clear propositions that form our collective and individual vision, engage our individual wills, and supply the means to get to that world (whatever it may be), empathy may end up along the roadside with other well-meaning relational tools. We need more than just the tools. We need a vision of the world – a worldview.

The worldview that I am most familiar with is the one proposed by Jesus Christ. It is the availability of the Kingdom of God to all who seek it. It is this Kingdom or the reign of God that is at the center of Jesus’s proposition. This proposition can be looked at in this way: It is the reign of a personal, accessible, and intimate God that provides vision. It is the availability of a relationship with this God – who is love, who is knowing and knowable, who is said to be among us – that may engage our will and direct our pursuit. It is Jesus, Himself, who offers to provide the means toward this Kingdom. This framing, and these propositions, bring up many questions that are all important and need answering. However here I am concentrated in the way the proposal works (or doesn’t), as it relates to other such proposals, and change in general.

Those who are familiar with his work will notice my use of Dallas Willard’s V.I.M. model for change in the example above. This model states that for transformation, that is complete change, to occur, one must be in possession of vision, intention, and means. Vision provides an outlook for what life might be like after the change occurs. Intention is what is behind the ongoing choice to proceed with the actions necessary to bring the change about. Means are the resources necessary by which the change is fueled. This model can be applied to everything from learning a new language (a change in skill), to traveling from one destination to another (a change in location), or entering the Kingdom of God (a change in spiritual position).

With the V.I.M. model in place let’s look at our worldview example.


The Kingdom of God may be described as an experience of life in which God reigns. It sets a complete vision of what life could be like. This is obviously in contrast to experiences of life in which governments, families, jobs, even nature take the position of reigning power. This is also in contrast to an experience of life in which I might think that I am the ultimate reigning power. Given the possibility that these contrasting experiences may be more present for most people, a vision of an experience of life in which God reigns requires cultivation of vision. What would life in the Kingdom of God be like? How might my days be different? What exactly might change? We may be thinking that the answers to these questions are heavily determined by the character of God, the king of said kingdom. We would be right.

A brief aside. The language of kingdoms is foreign to many in the current world. I hope it is not obstructive. It is frankly a concise way of describing one’s range of influence. That is where what one wants to happen, actually happens. We each have a kingdom, a place where we rule. We each have a range of influence in which what we want to have happen can and does happen. Our individual ranges vary, and the scale of impact may be quite different from individual to individual. Nevertheless, the influence is there. When we relate with others, we experience alignment or clashing of kingdoms. Agreement or disagreement as to what should happen. So then, the Kingdom of God is the place where what God wants to have happen, does happen.

This brings us back to the character of God. This is an important question to pursue, that deserves its own writing, so I won’t go into it much here. It is enough for us to say that any vision of a kingdom will be shaped by our understanding of the king. What we want to happen is a function of who we are. So, knowing the character of God allows us insight into what God might want to have happen.

Any vision requires testing. The Kingdom of God begins for many as a proposition – an unseen possibility. Not a reality. At the time we are introduced to the proposition, the testimonies of people who have experienced the Kingdom of God throughout the generations interact with our lived experiences and begin to work out the truth of the proposition. We test it out against our own lived experiences. If the proposition is attractive, desirable enough for us, we begin to make specific choices towards its direction. If small tests of the proposition return trustworthy, then the vision can grow. We make more choices that reinforce the vision, and the vision begins to become a reality.


This is what we can do. To enter into a new vision, choices must be made. The door has been opened, in this case, and it is our part to choose to enter. We don’t do the entering under the strength of our own will. Jesus plainly states that entrance into the Kingdom of God happens by following Him. We will confront resistance from our current formation – habits of thought and action formed from other experiences of life outside of this vision. Any thoughts we hold about God and God’s character that don’t align with what is true about God also become points of contention.

As we look at the V.I.M. model, if vision is the goal, intention is the directive. Intention honors the idea that we have a part to play. That choice matters. That there is a power towards change that comes from choosing a direction. As an improviser, I understand the idea of physical memory and habit – the fact that we can do many things without having to necessarily think about them. I also understand the power of choice-making. That we can interrupt what we normally would do, in order to do a new thing. There are some world views that minimize choice, while others will set human choice as the ultimate tool of manifestation. I sit in between, honoring human choice, yet believing that there is something much greater than I who holds ultimate creative power. I mention this so that we can be thinking about how we see choice, and more specifically intention, when we are working towards a new vision.

If we feel motivated to try something, we must intend to do it. If we say we are doing something, and the thing is not happening, then we don’t intend to do it – at least not yet. We may not intend to not do it – that is we are not intending for the thing to not happen. But the reality of the situation is that the thing that we say we are doing is not happening. In such a  case, our intention may need to be inspected. This may be hard for some to hear as it begs the question, “How much are we willing to change in order to pursue the direction we are intending?” Being made and place in circumstances of naturally limited resources (time, physical, material, etc.), this question is at the heart of any change.


With a vision in our mind, and the choice made, we must now have the means for change to come to fruition. Imagine having been proposed access to the good life by someone imparting a vision of the Kingdom of God so wonderfully that our intention turns towards it. Then we are left without any means to enter. What a sad state!

No, means are exceptionally important. They are the fuel to our engine of choice. They provide the provision necessary for the journey into the vision. If I were to desire to learn a language and had no access to a resource for learning such language, I would be stuck. Regardless of how strong my intention or clear my vision to learn is, I need the resource. If a particular resource is not available, maybe another resource would do. Instead of requiring a teacher, maybe I need to be looking for someone who may know a teacher. Instead of looking for a video maybe what I need is a book. Being open to the kind of resource, so long as it aligns with your intention and vision (this is key), can be the start of a creative way of discovering the means to fruition of a particular vision.

As far as our example goes, God – the Father, the person of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – is the primary resource. We pursue them, can speak with them, and learn from them. There are other resources for sure – writings, people, videos – that speak to the vision of the Kingdom, the challenges and wonder we might experience as we set our intention and begin the journey, and point back to God and interact with other resources, as well.

Here it might be worthwhile to mention that the means are not the goal. The vision is. I have sometimes found myself sidetracked by the book collecting, people finding, and video watching. My journey has suffered, detoured, or slowed because of it. Keeping the vision front of mind is key.

So, what’s the difference?

I started writing this article with an interest to compare the V.I.M. model of change, using the proposition of the Kingdom of God, with other propositions of change. I suspect that many would agree that the world could use more people who exercise empathy, are trustworthy, or who are willing to give generously. Unfortunately, I’m sure we have also experienced situations in which these relational tools were used in ways that were simply not good. Empathy used to engender trust, only for that trust to be broken. Gifts given to establish indebtedness, not empowerment. These are tools – empathy, trust, giving – and can be used for good or otherwise. It seems that the underlying assumption in elevating anyone of these tools to prominence is that they will obviously be used for good. They must be coming from a good kind of person. If we can just teach people how to use the tool, we can see the goodness of their individual character come out. Their character might even change towards the good upon using the tool. This might well be true.

However, I think working from the other direction, that is on the character of the person first, is equally important, if not more so. If through a proposition of change such as the access and entrance into the Kingdom of God described above, one cultivates a personal change towards good that is pervasive, encompassing, and immersive, the tools needed organically come. They are the means. Even under pressure the person who is good, can only do good things, because that is what is inside them. Empathy comes as the desire to want to know and wish good for another begins to grow. Trust and trustworthiness come as individual integrity grows. Giving comes as someone else’s needs become more important than our own. I submit that it will all come, and come organically, even easily, if our vision is set well and cultivated. The tools are wonderful, but we need more than tools. We need a vision of the world that captures our imagination, allows us to do our part, and points to the means to have that vision come to fruition.