Today we are often told that white Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and others cannot completely understand one another.
This isn’t willful ignorance; either one shares in a cultural inheritance (including, perhaps, a history of slavery or colonial oppression or dominance), or one is left forever outside, clueless. Once it was thought that literature, art and music helped to bridge these divides, but now even these belong mostly to those inside one culture or another.
We hear also that women and men cannot fully understand each other. Even Christian teachers such as Emerson Eggerichs say the two genders are wired differently, so each of us sees the world through either a different lens.
And if culture and language and gender place us in ever-subdividing, ever-smaller corporate silos (over here for evangelical heterosexual Korean American women under 40!), personal experience individualizes and isolates us utterly. As a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, who later took his life, told his own sister, “You’ll never be able to understand.”
This is a dismal, lonely picture. Yet it may, in some ways, be Biblical.
Only One’s Own Pain and Joy
There is a curious verse that says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Job (admittedly not on his best day) agrees that a man “feels but the pain of his own body and mourns only for himself” (Job 14:22).
Isn’t this aloneness melted away by the warmth of Christian fellowship? I am not so sure. “In Christ”—that is, as we die to self and live a Christ-controlled life—all believers are one, and distinctions between races and cultures, genders and social classes no longer matter (Galatians 3:28). But this happens precisely when “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11; John 17:21). It’s an ideal that is not often realized in our imperfect lives and churches. It is even more rare than deep friendships (1 Samuel 18:1; Proverbs 18:24).
Indeed, it is hard to imagine quite what this “oneness” is like. Do we ever really transcend culture, when even the inhabitants of heaven are aware that they represent “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; 7:9)? It would appear that, while Christ has put to death the hostility between nations (Ephesians 2:14-18), aspects of one’s cultural heritage are preserved, even as, in Psalm 87:4-5, people from many nations are said to be “born in Zion” without losing their countries of origin. Similarly, in heaven people neither marry (as a man does) nor are given in marriage (as a woman is) (Matthew 22:30), but this does not necessarily mean gender itself is abolished.
Paul urged those in his churches to be one in mind and spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2; 1:27; Romans 15:5-6), by becoming Christlike (Philippians 2:5-8). But the tensions are apparent. Paul’s converts may have been treasured in his heart, but he complained that their hearts were narrowed against him (2 Corinthians 6:11-13; 7:2-3). He could even say that some of their gatherings did more harm than good (1 Corinthians 11:17).
Paul labored to “become like” Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:19-22), but no one thought it strange that he was particularly passionate about the salvation of fellow Jews (Romans 9-11) and found special comfort in the company of Jewish Christians (Colossians 4:11).
Women in the New Testament churches served in leadership positions and prophesied. If they did not teach men (1 Timothy 2:12), they certainly trained younger women (Titus 2:4). Still, one does not form an impression of a “oneness” in which gender roles were entirely forsaken or an awareness of gender overcome.
As followers of Christ, we try to rejoice and weep with others (Romans 12:15), but our efforts are often clumsy and reactive. Even the gifts of the Spirit don’t bring perfect empathy: Elisha could eavesdrop on the distant war councils of the king of Syria, but the heart of a grieving mother was a closed book to him (2 Kings 6:8-12; 4:27).
We must make intimacy our aim. I am only suggesting that, when we announce ourselves as “people with empathy” or “a church that understands,” we may start to believe we’re already there. Meanwhile, some of those who experience our occasional insensitivity feel estranged and condemned, while others call us hypocrites. They don’t get to hear the good news: that there is One who understands perfectly.
The Empathy of Jesus
The God who made us knows the thoughts of each one of us and is familiar with all our ways (Psalm 139:1-6). He feels our pain (Isaiah 63:9) and gathers up our tears (Psalm 56:8). He longs to be gracious and rises to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18). We are born with a longing to know and be known; He knows us fully, and promises to bring us to fullness of knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In Jesus, this God comes near. He has shared our condition and is able to sympathize with all our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).
And yet He does more than comfort and console. Take Zacchaeus, broken and lonely, afraid of intimacy and thinking he’ll be content to see Jesus from afar. Jesus seeks him out, coming right up to the tree where he’s perched all by himself. But Jesus doesn’t clamber up and take the next branch. He has a different Tree to go to, and He calls Zacchaeus down and out into His own road (Luke 19). Ultimately, to paraphrase the verse in Proverbs, Jesus did not come in order to know Zacchaeus’s bitterness and share his joy. He came with an invitation and a challenge: “Drink the cup of My bitterness; enter into My joy.”
This way of the Cross is life “in Christ.” This is where we meet. As we follow, gradually we will become one.
John Espy is an instructional writer who lives in Kansas. He blogs at Bible Weigh Station, bibleweighstation.wordpress.com.