Friday, November 24, 2006

Empathy and Jesus

I'm writing a paper on empathy for my Counseling Skills class. Here's a good definition of empathy:

"Empathy is an intuitive act in which we give complete attention to someone else's experience in a way that allows the other to realize that we both share and understand the essential quality of that experience. To be empathetic is to provide a safe haven for the particular experience of the other person. To be empathetic is to release the other person from feeling entirely alone and strange."
(J. E. Bellous, in "Considering Empathy," McMaster Journal of Theology & Ministry, Vol. 3)

I find that in troubled marriages, empathy is usually lacking from one or both spouses. They don't listen to each other. Before one person has spoken, the other has already prepared an answer. They don't "give complete attention" to the other person's experience; instead, they defend themselves and focus on the other's faults. They do not provide "a safe haven" for each other. The result is that each spouse feels "entirely alone and strange."

We would be more empathetic with each other if we'd remember how empathetic Jesus is with us.

The incarnation was an act of divine empathy. God came to earth both to share and to understand our experience of sin and misery. In fact the whole of redemptive history is a record of God's repeated attempts to empathize with us.

The climax of God's empathy was the cross, when Christ did not merely understand our sin but became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now He is the High Priest who is able to "sympathize [i.e., empathize] with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 5:15).

This truth about God ought to stun us. The Greeks of the New Testament era did not think that empathy between humans and the gods was possible. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and others who reject the divinity of Christ don't get it either. But Christians understand that God literally became flesh, and now identifies fully with us. As Irenaeus put it, "He became as we are in order that we might become as He is."

Not only is it stunning to think about this, but it's wonderfully comforting. Jesus understands my loneliness, my coldness, my fear, my worry. Because of His bottomless empathy, I never need to feel ashamed to tell Him about my "stuff." He's been there. He was tempted in every single way I am tempted, though He didn't give in. So with God, I've been released from feeling alone and strange. Like Job's three friends did at first (Job 2:11-13), God chooses again and again to sit with us in our pain and not say a word, feeling with us and for us.

So if you know you need to grow more empathetic, think about Jesus.

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