Suffering with Others: A Neuroscience Perspective on Wesley’s Acts of Mercy

by Paul Shrier, Ph.D., and Cahleen Shrier, Ph.D.
Illustration by Paul Alexander ’07

Have you ever caught yourself mimicking sad facial expressions such as crying as you observe someone grieving in a movie, or felt elation when you watched your favorite team celebrate after winning a championship? This common human response of sharing the emotions of another person is one aspect of empathy. Positive empathy is one element of an even larger emotional and cognitive experience and practice we call love.

Christians consider love to be the central motivating force in life. In I John 4:16, Paul says that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Wesley on Serving the Needy

John Wesley believed that we are “saved” to establish God’s will in our lives.1 He further believed that God’s primary will for us is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30). Wesley believed that these two loves were inseparable and that God’s love for us leads us to love our neighbor. He contended that Paul was writing about loving our neighbors when he penned 1 Corinthians 13 describing love as the greatest Christian virtue (Wesley, “On Charity,” 1.2). It is the motivating love of God that causes us to love our neighbor: “ . . . this love sweetly constrains him [the Christian] to love every child of man with the love which is here [1 Cor. 13] spoken of; not with a love of esteem or of complacence . . . but with the love of benevolence, of tender goodwill to all the souls that God has made” (Wesley, “On Charity” 1.2).

Referring to 1 Corinthians 13:3, Wesley writes that acts of mercy ought to flow out of love, otherwise, even though they benefit others, they will not benefit the soul of the giver (Wesley, “On Charity” 3.8).

Wesley held that God’s will was established in our lives through renewing our will. He used the term will to refer to motivating emotions such as love, anger, and desire. These include both momentary emotional states and habitual emotional patterns.23 Wesley used the term sanctification to describe the inward and outward process of establishing right emotions in a person’s life, which in turn establishes God’s will in a person’s life. God sanctifies us. However, Wesley said that we participate in God’s actions through means of grace; that is, actions that Christians do to participate in God’s sanctification process.

Acts of piety and acts of mercy are two categories of means of grace. Acts of piety include prayer, Bible reading, participating in the Lord’s Supper, etc. Acts of mercy include visiting prisoners and the sick, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless. All of these acts increase our love of God and neighbor.4 Perhaps surprising to us, Wesley wrote that acts of mercy were more important than acts of piety for Christian sanctification; both are essential, but acts of mercy take priority (Wesley, “On Zeal” 2). He wrote in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick” that those who neglect acts of mercy “do not receive the grace they otherwise might.” Even more strongly, Wesley points to the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:34-46 to argue that those who neglect acts of mercy will be weak and feeble in their Christian walk and will be rejected by God. He believes that this is true even for persons who regularly practice acts of piety.

For Wesley, acts of mercy sanctify us. That means that they increase our ability to do God’s will – to love God and love our neighbors. Can recent advances in the study of mirror neurons provide us with additional insights about the value of acts of mercy?

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neuron systems allow us to experience the emotions and thoughts of another person. Experiencing the emotions and thoughts of others is the foundation of empathy.5 Mirror neurons are a class of visual/motor neurons that are discharged when a person watches another person performing an activity. This neural activity occurs in the same neural areas that would be activated if the individual were actually performing the activity. If I watch you throw a baseball, my mirror neuron system mimics your throw. Simultaneously, my muscles are inhibited from throwing a ball.6 If there were no inhibition, as I watched you throw the ball I would physically perform the same motions. The pre-motor representation of actions we observe others performing allow the observer to “experience” the action and to know and understand its outcome. “Thus, the mirror system transforms visual information into knowledge.”7 Mirror neurons will also transform the sounds of action, like the ripping of paper, into a mirror of the action that caused the sound.8

As a consequence of the pervasive influence of mirror neurons on understanding, Giocomo Rizzolatti notes that the mirror neurons are the anatomical link between the sender and the receiver.9Therefore, mirror neurons make shared meanings possible.

Wesley’s belief that acts of mercy are essential for growth in love is illustrated in the following example. If I comfort a foster child who is terrified because he has been taken from his home, I will “experience” his physical discomforts. This experience will include the body and the facial responses to fear, as well as the child’s verbal sounds. My mirror neuron system will reproduce the child’s terror in my pre-motor cortex. When I mirror the child’s terror, I will experience these same feelings. This shared feeling of suffering, the basis of empathy, provides me with a deep compassion that is only available through direct experiences of the suffering child. As I reflect on this suffering, my love and compassion can grow, as can my gratitude to God for my own secure circumstances.

Mirror neurons allow us to directly experience the feelings of others and become more compassionate. Before discovery of this neurological explanation for empathic feelings, Wesley recognized the importance of personally spending time with those who suffer. He concretely described how to perform acts of mercy in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick.” He wrote that physically visiting the sick in person is every Christian’s obligation, unless it is impossible for a person because of their own infirmity. He wrote that while we ought to give money and other assistance we cannot do this in place of visiting in person. Wesley wrote that when we visit the sick, we encourage their souls. Further, and of equal importance, we receive grace through increased thankfulness to God for our health, increased empathy for the afflicted and benevolence toward them, and increased interest and activity in matters of social action (Wesley, “On Visiting the Sick” 1.2-3). Further, by visiting the sick we grow in humility, patience, tenderness of spirit, and, he re-emphasizes, sympathy of spirit.

Wesley wrote that when we visit the sick, we ought to do so prayerfully, patiently, and humbly, that is, without answers. We ought to ask about and care for their outward needs as comprehensively as possible. Afterward, we ought to inquire about their inward condition and pray for and visit the sick regularly – young, old, rich, poor, men, women, the healthy and sufferers, and parents with their children.

Wesley understood that in his society, the rich seldom had empathy for the poor because they seldom visited them. How does Wesley’s experience relate to our American evangelical culture? Do we evangelical Christians, including paid pastors and staff, college administrators, church and college boards and committee members, and faculty at Christian colleges, regularly serve those who suffer? Or do we give money and feel that we have done our part? According to Wesley, if we only give money and not sufficient time, we will not gain God’s empathy for the suffering. Neither will we experience God’s sanctifying grace He intends us to receive. As a result, we will lack love for God and for our neighbors.

What can we do to make sure we are growing in grace and love for God and our neighbors? We can regularly spend time with sufferers, become foster parents or adopt a foster child in our community, or volunteer at our local hospital, prison, or food bank. Whatever we do, we must be consistent in these activities in order to grow in grace; sporadic involvement disappoints those who we serve. Finally, we can spend more time teaching about, modeling, mentoring, and otherwise encouraging others to perform acts of mercy – in person. In this way, we can expect to grow in love for our neighbors and our God.

Paul Shrier, Ph.D., associate professor of practical theology, and Cahleen Shrier, Ph.D., professor of biology. and


  1. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 66ff.
  2. Maddox, 69.
  3. Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd Ed. (London: Epworth Press, 2002), 395.
  4. Maddox, 215.
  5. Giocomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero, “The Mirror-Neuron System,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169-192, 2004, 172.
  6. Rizzolatti, 175.
  7. Rizzolatti, 172.
  8. E. Kohler, C. Keysers, M.A. Umilta, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and G. Rizzolatti, “Hearing Sounds, Understanding Actions: Action Representation in Mirror Neurons,” Science 297: 846-48, 2002.
  9. Rizzolatti, 183.