Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. My wife tells me that I am not good at empathy. Just last week she lovingly scolded me for how non-empathetic I was concerning the pains of her pregnancy in this second trimester. I have never been pregnant nor will I ever be. Its hard for me to imagine growing a human baby from within my own body. Its hard for me to comprehend the hormones, soreness, and labor pains. But, for me to love my wife well, I have to imagine. I have to zoom out of my own little world and my own limited experience so that I might feel what she is feeling for the sake of understanding. I have to understand so that I can love. We all sense that we are loved best when we are understood most.
Empathy is one of the unique characteristics of the Lord Jesus. The first century readers of Hebrews were undergoing incredible degrees of persecution, pressure, and temptation. Many had been imprisoned. Many had their property plundered. Many succumbed to the temptation to turn away from their faith. But, at least one of the ways the author urges the reader to persevere is by turning their eyes to the empathy of Christ.
Hebrews 2:17-18 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 4:14-15 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
The Christian God not only took a step toward us, but he took a step with us. Jesus of Nazareth walked in our shoes not one mile but two (Mt 5:41). Though he did not have to, he faced hardship, heartache, and hatred. He felt what we feel and endured what we endure that he might bridge the gap between God and man. He was and is the only means of reconciliation between the biggest divide in the cosmos – the divide between a Holy God and sinful humanity.
The cross of Christ was the biggest act of injustice in history. Jesus took upon himself all the justice of God’s wrath that humanity deserved and he gave us his righteousness though we never earned it. Now we have a God who not only loves us, saves us, and forgives us, but one who also knows us most fully. He has felt the pain we feel and resisted the temptations we resist. We are fully known and fully loved.
There is something to be learned here for our present historical moment. There is a clear principle for genuine love. We are not God. We cannot physically and genuinely take someone else’s place or walk in someone else’s shoes. We can, however, listen. We can seek to understand. We can strive to share the feelings of another outside of our own experience with the aim of love.
Here are a few realities of our present moment. We have seen the video of George Floyd having his life taken from him. This came just weeks after the video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery going on a jog and being gunned down in the street. These are real people with real grieving families. They will still be grieving when all the protests are over. They will still have to gather around the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas this year with the painful presence of an empty seat. Black mothers and fathers across our country watched those videos and they clung to their children a little tighter. They feared all the more that their teenage sons would one day take a jog on the wrong street at the wrong time. At the same time, there are hundreds and thousands of police officers, who took a genuine oath to serve and protect for little pay or recognition. They are putting on their uniform today with more fear and anxiety than every before. Officers of all races and backgrounds are facing crowds of angry, violent, and desperate people whom they have promised to protect and they do so to the chants of hatred for all those who wear a badge. They are real people with children and spouses whose worry will not be relieved until the night shift is over. Lastly, there are now business owners, employers, and employees in cities around the nation who were already struggling with the severe economic effects of a pandemic. Many of them are at home tonight in shock and unsure of what the future holds now that there place of work has been vandalized or perhaps even burnt to the ground.
I don’t have all the answers for the racism that exists in America today, but I do know that at least one of the things that we should all be striving for at such a time as this is the art of empathy. Christian, if Christ lived a sinless life in this broken world and then died the death we deserved, lets be the kind of people who reflect that same willingness to both fully understand and fully love. Lets leave the comfort of our own limited perspective. Let’s listen. Let’s take steps of love both toward and with one another. Lets pray for strength and wisdom from the one who did this best.