In the wake of recent events involving two killings of black men by police, the subsequent protests, and the calculated murder of five law enforcement officers in Dallas, I thought it was a good time to speak of an important Christian virtue that tends to get lost during such volatile moments. It is the virtue of empathy.
In Romans 12:12, the Apostle Paul admonishes the Church to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” This command goes far deeper than mere sympathy. It requires one to be able to enter into the world of another; to see vicariously through their eyes and share their experience. The greatest example of this, of course, is God Himself. We see in Scripture a God who not only acts, but acts out of an intimate understanding of our condition. He does not deal with us impersonally.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.– Psalm 103:14
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.– Hebrews 4:15
There are valid reasons why Christian empathy is so difficult in these times. I’ll deal with the first of those reason in this post and touch on the second one in the next.
The first difficulty arises out of a pervasive mindset today that, unless you go through certain experiences or struggles personally, you are unable to understand and speak into the experiences of others. Certainly, there is some truth here. Similar experiences can create a level of empathy and comfort that is extremely helpful. Paul speaks of this truth in his letter to the Corinthian church.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. -2 Corinthians 1:3-5
The view that God often takes me through particular troubles as a means of ministering comfort and love to another is a life-changing perspective, and one we should not abandon. The trouble for us is when we see so much of this way of speaking being used as a weapon to avoid any kind of judgment or criticism. You just don’t understand, therefore, you cannot speak truth into this situation. As a young pastor, this was a common obstacle when providing biblical counsel to someone struggling in situations I had never experienced. It was a hyper-contextualization of biblical truth. It was a way to slip out from under biblical authority.
Our reaction to such blameshifting has been to minimize the importance of personal understanding and live among high and lofty principles. The very fact that God communicated his revelation to us in the context of human experience- story, poetry, personal letters- shows us that empathy is a necessary ingredient to speaking the truth in love. We do not preach esoteric, abstract truths. We preach Christ. We preach the Word made flesh. We preach a real tangible salvation come down into a real world to save a real people-both body and soul. This truth we hold so dear is incarnational truth.
One way for us to correct this overreaction is to be humble enough to acknowledge the complexity of the human experience and show a good bit of grace. Life is not simple. If you’ve lived more than a few minutes in the real world, I don’t have to convince you of this. At least, we understand this about ourselves. Our hearts and minds are complex. Nothing is straightforward. It’s one of the reasons we need community. It’s why God grows us up into our salvation through the fellowship of the church. We cannot fully understand ourselves. Others must speak wisdom and insight into our lives. But we have a very different lens when looking at others not like us. Everything suddenly becomes flat. Our lines of judgment are drawn very straight and very narrow. We live by the Spirit and judge by the letter.
I feel the pull. I understand why we speak out of frustration amidst the cultural warfare all around us. If we are wise in the Scriptures, then we often can provide a quick diagnosis of the problems. We know the effects of father-hunger. We know the fruit that grows from self-pity and bitterness. We know and have experienced how the truth sets us free and how the sinful heart rebels against that freedom. Unfortunately, the church has lost its voice to speak into these things because we either speak truth without empathy or express empathy without truth. Truth and grace go hand in hand. One is not fully itself without the other. Out tendency is to serve up a good dish of truth but forget the importance of taste. Grace is a seasoning that is easily noticed when missing. Green beans are good and healthy and wonderfully beneficial, but I still want nothing to do with them if they are not seasoned to taste.
I spent many years in wonderful ministry and friendship with black families during our time in Virginia Beach. And I can tell you that one of the greatest lessons I learned there was to recognize and appreciate our differences. I learned that we are not all individual units of flesh and bone operating on dedicated brain servers. We are a people. We are many peoples. Our histories and cultures and experiences matter. I learned, and continue to learn, how to bring a humility and graciousness into the equation when speaking the truths of the gospel. The gospel transcends our history. It delves deeper than our psychological and social complexities. But that is the Spirit’s work, not mine. There is a time to speak prophetically, and we better be ready when such boldness is needed. There is also a time to listen; a time to work hard with your God-given imagination to enter into the world of another so that your speech will “always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6)
As the church, we speak the words of God to a people created by him and for him. Let us take the time to do it in a way that reflects more of his perfect character and less of our own.