A Word from Bob 

You’re reading Part 7 of a blog mini-series on biblical empathy.

Mini-Series Introduction 

There’s been some controversy in Evangelical Christian circles the past year about “empathy,” with some saying, “empathy is sinful.” For 36 years (since 1985), I’ve equipped God’s people for compassionate, empathetic one-another care. So, biblical empathy has been important to me long before the current controversy. In this blog mini-series, rather than presenting a negative critique of writings that say, “empathy is sinful,” I’m seeking to offer a positive presentation of what the Bible says about empathetic one-another care. Simply stated, I desire to present a brief biblical case for biblical empathy—what it is, why it is vital, and how we can minister Christlike empathy to one another. And, rather than “re-inventing the wheel,” I’m developing this series from the culmination of 36 years of thinking about this topic, especially as summarized in my equipping book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ. 

From Climbing in the Casket (Empathy) to Celebrating the Empty Tomb (Encouragement) 

Several times in our biblical study of empathy, we’ve examined 2 Corinthians 1:8-9a:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.”

Sometimes we want to ignore empathy and the casket experiences of life. Not Paul. He didn’t want the Corinthians to be ignorant about how he despaired of life and felt the sentence of death—his personal casket experience.

Yet, Paul did not stop at the casket. Notice the rest of verse 9, and how Paul moves to the empty tomb, to the resurrection, to the God who raises the dead:

“But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

Empathy never “closes the casket shut.” Instead:

Biblical empathy always invites the resurrected Christ into the casket!

Empathy Encourages Movement from Self-Reliance to God-Reliance 

Empathy’s “endgame” is not our friend saying to us, “You’re the most caring person in the world!”

No, empathy’s endgame is our being “Jesus with skin on” and pointing our friend to God, so that they say, “The Trinity is the most empathetic Being in the universe!”

Empathy’s endgame is not our friend relying on us. No, empathy’s endgame, as 2 Corinthians 1:9b describes, is our friend not relying on us, not relying on them self, but relying on God who raises the dead—the God of resurrection hope.  

Think of the relational journey with a hurting, suffering person like this:

Empathy & Encouragement Throughout Church History 

Long before any modern debate about the essential value of empathy, believers were practicing one-another soul care through the twin arts of sustaining empathy and healing encouragement. (See Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ where I develop this church history from books such as Clebsch and Jaekle’s Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective.)  

Sustaining Soul Care:

Healing Soul Care:

Church history pictures for us pivoting back and forth between the earthly story and the eternal story—one foot at all times in both worlds.

We listen with both ears: one to our friend’s temporal story of hurt and the other to our Father’s heavenly story of hope. Biblical one-another soul care resides between both worlds—empathy and encouragement.

Satan seeks to misuse suffering to “crop Christ out of the picture”—to shrink our perspective and decimate our hope. That’s why in suffering, we need to encourage one another by “cropping Christ back into the picture.”

We pray for our friend the same prayer that Elisha prayed, “Lord, open his eyes that he might see” (2 Kings 6:17). We pray Ephesians 1:18, that the eyes of their heart might be enlightened that they may know the hope to which they are called. We stretch our friend to the eternal story with an eternal perspective and with eyes wide open to the God who raises the dead.

Follow the Spirit: Romans 8:17-27 Before Romans 8:28 

Having supervised pastors, lay people, and counselors for almost four decades, I can tell you that our typical problem is not with too little empathy! No, time after time, consistently, pastors in particular, race right past empathy and try to cram in encouragement. In other words:

This is the opposite of what the Spirit does!

We race first to Romans 8:28 and the truth that God works all things together for good. But what comes before Romans 8:28? Eleven verses about suffering come before Romans 8:28. Including the relational truth that the Spirit grieves, groans, and empathizes with us.

Let’s be like the Holy Spirit in empathizing as the foundation for encouraging.

A Testimonial: The Power of Patient, Persistent Biblical Empathy 

People, especially “Type A” pastor type people, often ask, “But how does sustaining empathy really help? Why not go right to healing hope?”

I like to turn that question around:

So, I asked a pastor friend—who I counseled for almost half a year. With his permission, I share these personal, pastoral insights into the power of patient biblical empathy.

My Question #1: “How would it have short-circuited the process in your life if I had raced us to hope, before climbing in the casket with you?”

My Friend’s Answer: “It would have prevented me from appropriately grieving things I needed to grieve. I tend to be one who tries to stuff negative feelings and simply presses forward, but I had gotten myself to a place where I couldn’t keep doing that. If you would have raced to hope, it would have reinforced an unhealthy pattern in my life, and it would have extended my struggle with depression. I would have either faked hope (because a good Christian is supposed to be hopeful!), or I would have concluded that I am hopeless.”

My Question #2: “How did it help you and minister to you when I patiently stayed with you in your pain and hurt?”

My Friend’s Answer: “It communicated great care for me that you were willing to be patient and take the time to do this. I didn’t feel like a project to fix. I didn’t feel like you were too busy. This was a tangible expression of God’s love and care for me. You were Jesus with skin on, and this helped me to experience and grasp what I know to be true of God, but had lost sight of.”

My Question #3: “How did climbing in your casket prepare the soil of your soul for celebrating the empty tomb?”

My Friend’s Answer: “Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, I needed to sit in my casket in order to truly see the Lord who raises the dead as my only hope. This season reminded me how desperate I am for His resurrection power, which in turn leads me to celebration that Jesus is risen and His power really is available to me. My joy was increased because I experienced the depth of my need coupled with seeing the abundance of Christ’s provision. All of this came home to me in a very practical, concrete way.”  

My Question #4: “Why was it important for us to start with inviting lament and groaning together, rather than to start with a focus on ‘suffering well’ or hoping in God?”

My Friend’s Answer: “This was crucial because I needed to be raw and honest with God. To bypass lament would have hindered the real, intimate relationship with the Father that I needed renewed in order to hope in Him. In other words, lament was what I needed to walk through during this season of suffering—living face-to-face with God rather than turning away from Him.”

Empathy surely has a companion—encouragement.

But brothers and sisters, please, don’t race past empathy.

Please don’t demonize empathy.

Empathy softens the soil of the soul, preparing the soul to cling to Christ alone.

The Rest of the Story 

Join us for Part 8, where we’ll explore:

The Heart Character Required to Empathize Biblically.

Join the Conversation 

In your life, who models the “both/and” of empathy and encouragement? Who models both climbing in the casket with you and celebrating the empty tomb with you?

In your ministry to others, how can you practice patient, persistent empathy as a foundation for careful hope-giving encouragement?

The post Empathy’s Companion: Encouragement to Hope in Christ Alone: Empathy Is Biblical, Part 7 appeared first on RPM Ministries.

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