In a 2019 Barna poll, researchers asked U.S. adults their perception of evangelical Christians. One of the questions was whether evangelicals were caring. While over 60 percent of evangelicals described themselves as caring, under 10 percent of non-Christians and 22 percent of all U.S. adults agreed. After our last 12 months of political division, I am afraid to see the current numbers. Some might argue we have a marketing problem. I suggest we have an empathy problem. What would it take for our Church to be known for our love and empathy for others?
What Jesus Had
The word empathy doesn’t appear in the Scriptures. This shouldn’t surprise us since the term was coined in the 19th century. It arose as a German word, Einfülung, which carries the idea of “feeling into.” But the absence of the word does not denote the absence of the idea. In fact, the authors of the synoptics seemed intent on presenting Jesus as a man who “feels into” the realities of others.
Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, in their book Born for Love, describe the essence of empathy as “the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.” This sounds very similar to St. Augustine’s definition of compassion in City of God: “What is compassion but a kind of fellow-feeling in our hearts for another’s misery, which compels us to come to his help by every means in our power?” (City of God, Book IX, chapter 5). This also sounds a lot like the ministry of Jesus.
Why did Jesus heal the lepers who called out to Him in Mark 1? He was “moved with pity.” Why did Jesus teach the crowds that greeted Him on the shores of the Galilean Sea? “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk 6:34) Why did Jesus feed the four thousand in Mark 8? “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.” Jesus saw the shame of the lepers’ uncleanness, the distress of the people’s ignorance and the pang of the crowd’s hunger. He was moved to act and make it better.
The connection between compassion and empathy is strengthened when we look at the Greek word translated as compassion or pity. It is, in the verb form, splanchnizomai, which is built on the Greek word for inwards or guts (splanchna). To have compassion is to be moved in your stomach, the seat of emotion for the ancients. You know the feeling when you see someone in need and your stomach churns. This is the kind of compassion Jesus had.
“I suppose that when our Saviour looked upon certain sights,” Spurgeon wondered, “those who watched him closely perceived that his internal agitation was very great, his emotions were very deep, and then his face betrayed it, his eyes gushed like founts with tears, and you saw that his big heart was ready to burst with pity for the sorrow upon which his eyes were gazing. He was moved with compassion. His whole nature was agitated with commiseration for the sufferers before him.”
Jesus had empathy. Brokenness moved Him at a deep, inward level. And it came out not only in His life, but also in His stories. Why did the father run out to meet his prodigal son on the road? Why did the Samaritan help the abandoned man along the road? They had compassion (Luke 10:33, 15:20). They felt it in their guts. They had empathy.
What the Church has Lost
How have we, as the Church, moved away from this gut-moving empathy for those outside our camp? I recently heard of an interaction in a seminary classroom that suggests a reason. The professor was speaking harshly in class about a certain group outside the church. One of the students challenged his choice of language as unloving. The professor replied, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell these people the truth. And the truth is they are wrong.” Rather than speaking the truth in love, truth has become an enemy of love.
In our effort to defend truth, especially during this time of cultural upheaval, we build walls around ourselves. The church becomes a castle, with ramparts to resist the siege machines, and battlements to repel the world’s advance. In this militarized position, the best we can do is to lob truth bombs out at the world and try to shoot down the propositional salvos they send against us. From this position, there is no way to gain empathy. There is no way to look “the other” in the eyes (both literally and metaphorically). Yes, we might send a team out for a “mercy ministry” maneuver, but it ends with a quick retreat behind the big stone walls. The closest we get to love is dropping leaflets of truth.
This protectionist posture undercuts empathy. In fact, our brain is not capable of being defensive and empathetic at the same time. The fight or flight function, which resides at the base of our brain, shuts down our higher functions in a bid for survival. This means our frontal cortex, which is the neural seat of empathy, is switched off when we are defensive. You can’t be on defense and empathetic at the same time.
But we can be loving and truthful at the same time. Just look at Jesus. He was The Truth and was also empathetic. So how do we get our empathy back?
How to get it Back
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose story was depicted in the recent film, Just Mercy, notes that the starting place of empathy is proximity. Until we get proximate with those who are poor, suffering and oppressed, we cannot understand their situation. And I would add, until we are proximate with those who disagree with us, who are outside of our circle, we cannot develop empathy for them either.
Notice that even Jesus’ empathy came from proximity. He was moved to compassion along the road, among the crowd and before the people. We need to follow Jesus out from behind our walls into the streets and among the crowds, not just to proclaim a message, but to listen and learn. The alternative is to become, like C.S. Lewis warned, men without chests. Or should we say, men without stomachs.
I have seen the process in my own life. I did not have empathy for those with traumatic backgrounds until we welcomed a traumatized toddler into our home. I did not have empathy for the foreigner until we lived among them. I did not, as a lifelong white Southern evangelical, have empathy for my Black neighbors until I shared enough meals with them to see life through their eyes. I found my empathy grow as I became proximate with those outside the walls.
As Christians, we have more reason than anyone to get proximate. Our whole faith is founded on the concept. The God we worship did not stay behind the walls of heaven but became proximate to his rebellious creation. The Great I Am became Immanuel, God with us. He did not come to condemn, but to save those suffering with no hope of salvation. In light of our Savior’s life, we have every reason to drop the walls around our hearts. In humility, we can get proximate with those outside the church. We can become men and women with guts. Because we can’t speak the truth in love if we don’t love.
Josh Irby lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, for 11 years before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2020. He holds a MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary-Atlanta and has been in ministry for 20 years. He is the co-author of the book Cross on a Hill: A Personal, Historical, and Biblical Search for the True Meaning of a Controversial Symbol. He loves traveling the world with his wife, Taylor, and their five third-culture kids. Twitter: @sarajevojosh