Any way you look at it, empathy is hard work. Selfishness always comes easy. Unfortunately, selfishness and empathy cannot occupy the same space in our lives.
Every time I scroll through social media I see a few expressions of empathy and many expressions that are anything but empathic. Words that dehumanize and marginalize people are always wrong, even if the words are directed toward people who do bad or unethical things.
The key thing about empathy – you don’t have to give up your firmly-held beliefs to practice it. I can empathize with a politician, a criminal, an NFL player taking a knee, a person who practices a different religion, a person who rejects religion, or any random person on the street even if I strongly disagree with their actions or beliefs. I simply must turn my full attention to the person in front of me and attempt to “walk a mile in his or her shoes.” Practicing empathy helps me look beyond beliefs and behaviors and see the intrinsic value of the person.
Empathy involves understanding where someone is coming from – geographically, existentially, and emotionally – seeing their hopes, fears, aspirations, and feelings. It is about reserving snap judgments, offering mercy, and refraining from offering witty retorts and biting remarks. Again, it doesn’t mean that we cannot disagree or offer correction. Empathetic correction is an act of love, not disdain.
Jesus is the ultimate example of empathy and the Gospels brim with accounts of Jesus practicing empathy (sometimes corrective) or teaching about it. Below are a few of the Gospel examples.
In Matt. 22, Jesus offers foundational teaching regarding our treatment of other when he was asked about which commandment was the greatest.
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matt. 22:37-39
Loving your neighbor as you love yourself … that’s empathy.
In Mark 10, Jesus met a rich young man who kneeled before Him and asked how to inherit eternal life. Jesus mentions the keeping of the commandments, and the man claims he has kept them all since his youth. Despite knowing the man’s heart – his selfishness, his love for money, his desire for power – despite knowing the man would reject him, Jesus seeks to understand this young man.
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” Mark 10:21
Jesus clearly saw the essence of this man (his hopes, fears, and feeling), and Jesus loved him. Jesus loved him, not because the man was good, not because He agreed with the man. Jesus loved him because he was an image-bearer. Jesus offers a correction that is rejected because the man wouldn’t give up his possessions.
Perhaps the greatest example of empathy in the ministry of Jesus is recorded in John 4. While traveling through Samaria, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who had lived a difficult life. She had abandoned by five different husbands (women had virtually no autonomy in that day). As I read through this account, I see empathy in almost every phrase.
Jesus crossed over two socio-culture boundaries just to talk with her. First, she was a woman and would be quite unusual for strangers of the opposite sex to have a conversation like this one. Second, she is a Samaritan, an ethnic group despised by the Jews – a group that invented its own way of worshipping Yahweh.
Jesus clearly disagrees with her lifestyle and her religious practice, but he doesn’t call her names or make fun of her. Jesus is both loving and corrective. He looks her in the eye and offers living water.
Will you lead people to living water? It is going to require the hard work of empathy.
Natalie Merchant’s song “Break Your Heart,” though secular, is powerfully, beautifully empathetic. It is worth a listen if you are trying to feel what others feel.
Watch the video here (Great video by the way)
Photo by Radek Skrzypczak at Unsplash.com.