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Would you help someone in need, or walk on by?

October 19, 2021 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

Posted in: Love

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22)

One of the all-time genius psychology studies was conducted by John Darley and Daniel Batson in the 1970’s at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darley and Batson were studying the psychology of prosocial behavior – why people do good things for others. Specifically, they wanted to examine whether acts of kindness are due more to innate qualities or to situational factors.

In the study, a group of seminary students were given the task of preparing a talk on Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (which I preached on this past Sunday). The students were told that they would need to walk to a nearby building, where they would meet up with a team member and deliver their sermon. A third of the participants were told that they had plenty of time to get there. Another third was told that they were on-time, but needed to head over now so as to not be late. The third group was told that they were running late.

Each student was sent out individually to walk through a narrow alleyway that was only four feet wide. Unbeknownst to the seminary students, the researchers had rigged the situation by placing a fallen stranger in the alleyway, who was told to appear sick and in need of help. Because the alleyway was so narrow, the students would not be able to get to the other building without stepping over the fallen stranger. Would the seminary students, on their way to preaching a sermon about the Good Samaritan, stop to help the man in need?

The researchers found that 63% of the “early” participants stopped to help the stranger. 45% of the “on-time” participants stopped to help. And only 10% of the “late” participants helped the stranger. Overall, only about 40% of the seminary students paused on their way to preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan to actually be a good Samaritan to the person in need.

The most obvious irony is that a large percentage of a group of seminary students, about to teach on the parable of the Good Samaritan, failed to actually stop and help someone in need. It seems like a clear case of James 1:22-23, hearing the word but not actually doing it. But a more relevant challenge to us might be seeing the effect that a hurried lifestyle can have on our awareness of the opportunities for ministry that God has placed all around us. In the study, only 10% of those who believed they were late for their sermon actually stopped to help.

I can certainly sympathize with the seminary students, for I hate to be late, and the stress I feel can drive me to be rude and dismissive to anyone who contributes to my lateness. But I think I can say with confidence that God cares more about whether or not we stop to help someone in need than whether or not we are on time. We must be careful not to let either promptness or productivity become an idol that we place above our service to God and our fellow human being.

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