A Word from Bob 

You’re reading Part 2 of a blog mini-series on empathy. You can read Part 1 here: Truth Without Empathy Is Sin. 

There’s been some controversy in evangelical Christian circles the past year about “empathy,” with some even saying “empathy is sinful.” For 36 years (since 1985), I’ve equipped God’s people for compassionate, empathetic one-another care. This issue has been important to me long before the current controversy. In this blog series, rather than giving you a negative critique of those who say, “empathy is sinful,” I’m providing a positive presentation of what the Bible says about one-another care. And, rather than “re-inventing the wheel,” I’m taking this series from the culmination of 36 years of thinking about this, as summarized in my equipping book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ.

Climbing in the Casket: A Biblical Picture of Empathy 

Biblical empathy is joining with sufferers in their suffering. It is weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15) and suffering with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:24-26). In biblical empathy, we listen compassionately to another person’s story of suffering and despair and we grieve with them, even to the point of experiencing their pain (2 Corinthians 1:3-9).

In Gospel Conversations, I use a rather macabre image to capture the essence of this biblical ministry of empathy:

Climbing in the Casket

I’ve developed this picture from 2 Corinthians 1:7-11, where Paul says he does not want his brothers and sisters in Christ to be ignorant about the hardships he had suffered. Paul goes on to say:

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8b-9a).

When Paul despaired of life and felt the sentence of death, he wanted the Corinthians to “climb in his casket”—to identify with him in what felt like a death sentence.

In biblical empathy, another person’s casket becomes our casket. Their sorrow becomes our sorrow because:

Shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.

By identifying with our friends in their suffering, we communicate that:

“It’s normal to hurt.”

We convey the reality that:

 “Our world is fallen and it often falls on us.”

“Our world is a mess, and it messes with our minds.”

In empathy, we give people permission to grieve—permission to be candid like the psalmists in the lament psalms and like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Climbing in the Casket: A Church History Picture of Empathy

In Gospel Conversations, I equip people for one-another empathy from the Bible and for that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11)—from church history. In Black Church history, Octavia Albert knew something about suffering and about comforting others in their suffering. Albert was an ex-enslaved college-educated African American pastor’s wife living in Louisiana. In the 1870s, she ministered to many other ex-enslaved men and women by recording their stories of suffering. One of those individuals was Charlotte Brooks. Of Brooks, Albert writes:

“It was in the fall of 1879 that I met Charlotte Brooks…. I have spent hours with her listening to her telling of her sad life of bondage in the cane-fields of Louisiana.”[i]               

If we would do what Albert did, then we would be miles ahead in our biblical empathy:

Spend hours listening to sad stories.

Rather than rescuing and compulsively trying to fix people, we need the courage and compassion to listen to stories of suffering. Like Job’s counselors did day after day—before they talked and became “miserable counselors” (Job 16:2).

As we listen to our spiritual friends’ earthly stories we need to empathize with them in their story. Empathy is not some secular Trojan Horse. It is a biblical word and a scriptural concept.

Think of the word: em-pathos: to enter the pathos or the passion of another, to allow another person’s agony to become your agony, to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) and suffer with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

Notice how Octavia Albert allowed Charlotte Brooks’ agony to become her own.

“Poor Charlotte Brooks! I can never forget how her eyes were filled with tears when she would speak of all her children: ‘Gone, and no one to care for me!’”[ii]

Albert pictures for us the essence of biblical empathy: climbing in the casket.

Not only must we feel what another person feels, we need to express and communicate that we “get it,” we feel it, we hurt too. Consider how Octavia Albert does so with Aunt Charlotte.

“Aunt Charlotte, my heart throbs with sympathy, and my eyes are filled with tears, whenever I hear you tell of the trials of yourself and others.”[iii]

What Albert modeled in 1879, the Church has long called “compassionate commiseration.” Don’t let these two beautiful, powerful words intimidate you.

Co-passion: to share the passionate feelings of another. 

Co-misery: to partner in the misery of your spiritual friend.

Aunt Charlotte describes the result of Octavia Albert’s ministry in her life.

“La, me, child! I never thought any body would care enough for me to tell of my trials and sorrows in this world! None but Jesus knows what I have passed through.”[iv]

Octavia Albert was Jesus with skin on.

Her care gave Aunt Charlotte a human taste of Jesus’ care—a taste Charlotte thought she would never receive this side of heaven.              

Biblical empathy—we suffer along with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). We suffer in the soul of another person, feeling with and participating in their inner world while remaining ourselves. We seek to understand their outer story and their inner story from their perspective. In summary:

Biblical empathy involves incarnationally entering into another person’s soul and experiencing their suffering as they experience it.

The Rest of the Story 

You’re invited to join us for Part 3 where we’ll explore what biblical empathy looks like in real life.

Join the Conversation 

In your life, who has “climbed in the casket with you”?

In your ministry to others, how have you been “Jesus with skin on” by incarnationally entering into another person’s soul and experiencing their suffering as they experience it?

Sources

[i]Octavia Albert, The House of Bondage, 2.

[ii]Ibid., 15.

[iii]Ibid., 28-29.

[iv]Ibid., 27.

The post Empathy Is Biblical: Part 2, Rich Soul Empathizing—Climbing in the Casket appeared first on RPM Ministries.

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