To this day, I have no idea what he said. I was a young Christian sitting opposite a middle-aged vicar. I had surmised that vicars were trained to say the right thing, so I held no store to his words. Rather, my focus was fixed on his unspoken response to what I had revealed regarding my past gay activity and the ongoing temptation I was experiencing. My eyes quickly scanned his body noting any physical response to my admission. I searched for a minute change in his eyes, facial activity, posture, neck muscles, hand motion, anything that would expose his true feelings. Would he accept or reject me? In knowing more would he think any less of me? Vulnerability is a risky business.
At that point, I didn’t want answers or explanations or a sheet offering ten steps to holiness. I just needed to know acceptance, mutuality, and a commitment from him and those who also followed Christ to be there. I needed empathy more than answers.
I needed empathy more than answers.
Empathy is seen as the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspectives, and emotions of another person. I am not naturally empathetic and fall too readily into the ‘Here’s the truth, now get on with it’ camp. While there may be a place for that response at some moments in the discipleship journey, it certainly isn’t at the point of disclosure!
So, how do we learn and develop empathy thus ensuring that we don’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick (Isaiah 42:3)? What does Scripture say?
'If I speak with the eloquence of men and of angels, but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal. If I have the gift of foretelling the future and hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but the very secrets of God, and if I also have that absolute faith which can move mountains, but have no love, I amount to nothing at all' (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, JB Phillips).
According to the Scripture above, simply to be right about something is not enough. Even to have and exert great faith and perform spectacular miracles is insufficient. The doing is secondary to the being, and it is out of the being we can offer true empathy.
The account of Mary, Martha, and the death of Lazarus which can be found in John 11, continues to fascinate. The two sisters greet Jesus with the same statement, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (John 11:21, 32). Jesus’ response to each sister is so very different. He speaks truth to Martha – ‘I am the resurrection’ – but seems unable to speak to Mary. He simply weeps with her. Martha’s grief demanded an answer, and Mary’s grief longed for compassion.
And what of Jesus? Back in verse 4 he states that Lazarus’ death will have a bigger kingdom purpose. He also knows that within minutes of his encounter with the sisters, he will raise their brother and his dear friend from the dead. Jesus possesses both the big picture and the power to bring part of that reality to earth. But the Saviour does not leap into action and put everything right; Jesus’ perfect love causes him to enter the grief and loss experienced by Martha and Mary.
Jesus’ perfect love causes him to enter the grief and loss experienced by Martha and Mary.
Albeit in a limited sense (Lazarus would die again), Jesus was about to bring beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning, and replace a spirit of despair with a garment of praise (Isaiah 61:3), yet, he still wept with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Jesus expresses the perfect balance of truth and grace that conveys the heart of God himself.
Clearly then, effective empathy must be rooted and established in God’s love so that can it offer hope leading to resurrection and abundant life.
I have spoken to many people over the years who want to come alongside those brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction, or gender identity issues, or sexual addiction but fear their own inadequacy. ‘How can we possibly help?’ they ask. ‘We’ve never encountered anything like that. We don’t know where to begin.’
What do you have in common?
How often do you hear the phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’? It is uttered by believers and non-believers alike when confronted with scenes showing suffering or neglect or loss. The well-worn phrase is true. What do we have that has not been granted to us from the hand of God?
The more I receive and retain God’s love for me the greater the realisation of the enormous chasm between us. And the more I understand God’s character the greater the gap. But this ever-growing expanse does not fill me with dread but with gratitude. He is indeed the High and Lofty One (Isaiah 57:15) but he is also the one who makes his home in every believing soul (John 14:23). This truth brings great joy and allows us to live from a place of fullness rather than need. And it is this fulness that fuels the empathy.
Out of a core of divine love, the incarnate Jesus exercised both empathy and action. We walk in his footsteps.