The Power of Empathy

It was either last week or the week before that I saw a story that talked of a personal trainer who planned on gaining a significant amount of weight and then proceed to lose it back. He wound up gaining seventy pounds before losing that seventy pounds back off. He has a website/blog that talks about his process and such at fit2fat2fit.com. What really strikes me though as you start from the top of the page is his slogan, “Personal trainer gains 70 pounds to empathize with the overweight.” He’s not giving the reason as doing it just to see if he could, but the reason is a word that I don’t think we see used very often, or even if we see or hear it used we don’t see it modeled.. He wanted to be able to put himself in the shoes of those who were overweight. I imagine that few people would put themselves in such a position.

Now I’m honestly not sure if empathy is necessarily a value of the culture. If it is I’d say we often desire empathy from others rather than giving it too much.  I could be wrong on that, but that’s just my observation. I can understand that from the culture. However, I wonder if empathy should be missing as much as it seems to be among Christians. If the book of Hebrews is to be believed we are claiming to follow the One who did the greatest act of empathy ever. Hebrews 2:17-18 says that, “For this very 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.” So you can easily say that Jesus becoming fully human in order to die and save is the ultimate act of empathy. God didn’t just become human to see if he could, but it was so that He knew directly the temptations and sufferings of us. He literally put Himself in our shoes.

If this is the reality are we also called to be empathic to those around us? Was it just something that Christ was to do and we don’t have to worry about it? Paul’s discussion on becoming all things to all people seems in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 indicates a call to empathy. To have an attitude that is willing and able to look at things from a different perspective is encouraged by Paul. We may not be able to do this perfectly, but I do think than an attitude that desires to love others and understand where they’re coming from is important to our witness as Christians.

As I’ve thought about this one image comes to mind. This image is from my first time going to a Sunday morning worship service. I was intensely nervous. I do not sweat much normally, but I was sweating that morning. I had little to no experience in church, popular thought said that Christians are nothing but mean-spirited hypocrites and I was worried that I would draw the ire of that crowd. I worried about what I was wearing, if I was doing things right, you name it and I was probably worrying about it.

I’m not sure if everyone who goes to the church for the first time is necessarily that worried, but I wonder if we ever think about those people who wander in for the first time? Do we assume that they know about what we do on Sunday mornings? Do we judge them because of what they wear or if they don’t fit the mold of who we want sitting in the pews on a Sunday? Do we remember what it was like the first time we ever set foot in the church? If we grew up in the church, do we realize that many people do not grow up in the church and will be different than we are?

Honestly I think many Christians have a hard time being empathic with each other. Preference seems to be a ruling tenant of the church, at least in the United States. We tend to identify ourselves by our divisions with other believers instead of the shared and we often lack patience and understanding with those who are different. In worse cases we even lack love towards those who are different. I’m not even talking here about differences that take out of the orthodox Christian faith, so it is no wonder that I think we lack empathy for those who are not Christian. We struggle to have empathy and love with those who share a common center, it is no wonder then that we find it even more difficult to be empathetic to those who don’t come from that center.

For the most part I think that this is not intentional. It isn’t that we want to be thoughtless towards our brothers and sisters in Christ or nonbelievers, but I think it is actually that we just can’t get past ourselves enough to even get to that point. Let me take the example out of the church and back to the story that I started with.

Imagine you are a personal trainer like in the story above. Now I’m not a personal trainer nor do I have extensive knowledge of personal training, but I would imagine that those who do it are well versed in the fitness world and are probably in pretty good shape themselves. Maybe they’ve been people that have exercised and been in shape their whole lives or they are people who became interested in fitness at some point and wanted to help others with it. Now if the trainer has no idea or forgets how hard it is to get into shape when you are overweight or out of shape it could be frustrating for all parties involved as the journey toward fitness begins. If the trainer simply focuses on their own experience of being fit their entire lives, or their current experience of fitness even if they weren’t in shape at one point then I would imagine that could cause a rift between trainer and trainee. However, if one were able to gain firsthand knowledge of how difficult it was to get in shape from being overweight and remember it, it could help the trainer relate to the trainee better as well as help the trainee by both letting them know that what they’re experiencing is normal, but also how best to overcome these difficulties.

When you take this analogy back to the church, admittedly, it doesn’t fit perfectly, because it isn’t quite as simple as gaining weight and losing it back off. However, my point is we can easily get focused on ourselves. We get focused on our preferences that have developed over a lifetime of going to church or from adjusting to the church culture and forgetting what it was like coming into that environment as a young believer or even a nonbeliever. We expect those who come and be a part of our congregation on a Sunday morning to have it together, to look a certain way, or to know what is going on. Even when we don’t expect that right away, I think at some point we’ll expect them to assimilate to our preferences. We often do this without really even getting to know people and where they come from. We want people to come and fit into our preferences, but this just isn’t God’s way of doing things.

Both Jesus and Paul present a picture that causes the one who knows more to reach out and practice empathy. For Jesus, it was the Son of God becoming human. There is no bigger way or reaching out than that. Jesus became human so that he could experience the suffering and temptations that humans went through. God did not just wait for us to view things the way that He does, but instead learned firsthand what we as humans experience. Paul talks of being able to relate to different types of people in ways they’ll understand. Paul says that he does this for the sake of the Gospel. Are we willing to use the power of empathy for the Gospel? Are we willing to look at things from the perspective of others as much as we can?  Or do we continue on this path of personal preference and unspoken expectation of assimilation? That path is easier, but I hope that we all learn to look beyond ourselves, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others and ultimately for the sake of the Gospel.

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