The man lying in the road was barely alive.
The muggers who robbed him had left him naked, wounded and sprawled along the road like a piece of discarded trash.
Unless help came soon, he was a dead man.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before a traveler happened upon the wounded man. He immediately took action … by stepping to the other side of the road and continuing his journey. Later, a second traveler passed by and did the same thing.
It’s difficult to understand how these two travelers were able to leave the wounded man to his fate. Given the situation, it seems impossibly cruel. What could possess someone to walk away while a fellow human being slowly dies? Surely such an individual would have to be a heartless, unfeeling monster, devoid of compassion and humanity.
The truth, it turns out, is a little more complicated—and a lot more unsettling.
The Good Samaritan
You might recognize the above story as the parable of the Good Samaritan—a story Jesus told to illustrate that, when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, everyone is our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).
In Christ’s story, the third traveler to come upon the wounded man is a Samaritan—an individual who, in the eyes of the average first-century Jew, was an inferior and abominable human being. The Samaritan sees the wounded man (who was likely a Jew, having come from Jerusalem; see verse 30), is overcome with compassion, and proceeds to clean the man up, care for his wounds, and personally convey him to an inn where he could rest and recover—all at the Samaritan’s own expense.
The Samaritan, we’re told, is the neighbor we all need to be.
Recreating a parable
In 1973 John Darley and Daniel Batson conducted an experiment inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan. They started by surveying a group of seminary students concerning their views on religion—was it a means of spiritual fulfillment? A tool for finding meaning in life?
Next, they assigned each student an impromptu topic for a speech they would be delivering in a nearby building. (One of those topics was, in fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan.) Finally, each student was sent individually to deliver his speech. Some students were told that they were running late and needed to hurry, while others were told they were ahead of schedule and could take their time.
On the way to deliver their speeches, students encountered a man, slumped over in an alley, coughing, groaning and in clear need of help.
This is where things get unsettling.
A matter of context
As they analyzed their findings, Darley and Batson discovered the factor that affected whether students would stop to help the man in distress. It wasn’t their assigned topic—the researchers noted that “on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!” It wasn’t their view on the purpose of religion.
It was simply whether or not they were in a hurry.
When the students weren’t in a hurry, 63 percent of them stopped to help the man in the alley. When they were in a hurry, that number plunged to 10 percent.
Ten. Percent. Nine out of 10 students saw a man who was potentially dying and kept on walking because they had somewhere to be.
The power of context
The implications here are staggering. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explores this study alongside several other groundbreaking findings that muddy the waters when it comes to how we traditionally view character.
When social scientist Philip Zimbardo created a mock prison and filled it with psychologically healthy volunteers to play the roles of prisoners and guards, he discovered that even self-identified pacifists quickly fell into the role of brutal taskmasters or mutinous criminals. The experiment spiraled out of control so quickly that Zimbardo was forced to end it eight days earlier than he had intended.
When New York City cracked down on the graffiti and fare-beating that were plaguing its subways, the crime rate plummeted. Criminals were still riding the subways, but by targeting two seemingly insignificant details—graffiti and not paying the fare—New York officials created an environment where crime felt out of place instead of normal.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell makes a compelling case that behavior isn’t just a product of who we are. It has a great deal to do with where we are as well. Experts conclude from these examples that the key to changing behavior is often as simple as changing the context. Put people in a context where crime seems normal, and the crime rate skyrockets. Scrub the graffiti off the walls, send the fare-beaters to jail for a night, and suddenly crime starts to vanish. Put the same people in a different context, and suddenly they’re doing things differently.
One step further
That’s a profound bit of insight, but as followers of God, I think we need to go one step further. These studies and experiments ought to give us pause: If environment can influence our behavior, then it’s entirely possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. If context factors so heavily in determining action, then, when it comes to character, what we’re doing plays second fiddle to why we’re doing it. Are we doing what’s right because it’s right, or just because it’s easy?
It’s easy to do good when we’re in an environment that encourages good behavior. Character comes into play when the context changes. When your environment stops rewarding you for doing good—or worse, when it starts punishing you—will you still do good? When you come across the wounded man lying on the road—when you’re in a hurry and no one would ever know if you just keep walking—what will you do?
Be not conformed
Our human nature makes it easy to follow the path of least resistance. We default to choosing whatever is easiest, whatever appears to be the shortest route to the quickest gains.
God calls us to fight that instinct. He calls us to do what’s right, regardless of the context, regardless of what’s easiest. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
I’m simplifying things, of course. Discerning what’s right and acceptable before God requires a healthy knowledge of His Word, coupled with wisdom and prudence. There are nuances we need to consider in every situation, and not every scenario we encounter is as clear-cut as Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan.
But the point remains: There’s a part of us that would prefer to conform to the world—to fit into the mold created by context and environment. But building godly character requires us to shatter that mold—to do what is right because it is right, proving the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Changing the context
It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. We’re talking about an uphill battle against yourself and the world around you. It’s going to require enduring hardship, making sacrifices and wrestling with instinct. It’s going to be extremely difficult, but it’s worth it for the payout.
The payout is getting to turn the tables. The more we pursue the will of God and refuse to let the world’s contexts dictate what we do, the more we begin to have an impact rather than simply being impacted.
Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world. … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). Becoming men and women who value and pursue godly character is going to create a more positive context for both ourselves and those who interact with us.
In Darley and Batson’s study, only 10 percent of the students in a hurry stopped to help the man in distress. Only 10 percent had enough character to resist the pull of context telling them they didn’t have time to stop and help, or that someone else would take care of it.
We have a choice here. We can point our fingers at the 90 percent who kept on walking, or we can acknowledge that context is a powerful force requiring effort to overcome. If we’re not vigilant, we, too, can become victims of context, allowing the situation we’re in to override the morals we aspire to live by. We all like to believe we’d be the Good Samaritan, but walking past the wounded man is a lot easier than it sounds.
In the end, either you’ll shape your context, or your context will shape you.
Character makes all the difference.