To empathize means to share the feelings of another. It means to put ourselves in the place of the other, as though that person’s perspective was ours and as though their pain was ours. It means to enter into their lives so deeply that our feelings and emotions are inextricably entangled.
The Bible is full of instructions that empathy should characterize the life of believers. Jesus said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Jesus’ compassion often flowed from his concern for the plight of others: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Paul in his letter to Galatians says “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). And in another letter he says “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). For Paul, not only was this to be a way of life characterizing the inner life of the church (though it seems to be especially that), but it was also part of church’s concern for others. Paul writes, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). For Paul, it seems, every thing took a back seat to the need for the Gospel to get through and he refused to let anything get in the way of that, and especially pride and the need to be right. In short, we might say that the Gospel and empathy go hand in hand. The more we care about others, the more we try to understand the struggles others face, the more opportunities we have to share with them the greatest story of empathy ever told, namely that of God who so identified with the struggles of humanity that, as John says, “he pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14).
As I contemplate the current political climate in America, I can’t help but think that it would, at the very least, be a much more civilized debate if Christians would re-discover the power of empathy. What might that look like? Perhaps like this:
With empathy, we would see those who identify as homosexuals as real people struggling with real issues that are complex and that defy simplistic explanations.
with empathy, we would see county clerks who struggle with questions of faith and public office not as bigots, but as human beings struggling to live out their convictions authentically, however imperfectly it may appear from our positions of comfort and care-free commentary.
Should not this fact alone prompt us to see through the lens of grace and to seek after more dialogue and less name calling, mud slinging, and overly-simplistic analysis? I tend to think that empathy, and the kind of love for others that Jesus modeled, demands at least this.