A Word from Bob
You’re reading Part 8 of a blog mini-series on biblical empathy.
- You can read Part 1 here: Truth Without Empathy Is Sin.
- You can read Part 2 here: Rich Soul Empathy—Climbing in the Casket.
- You can read Part 3 here: How to Be a Miserable, Non-Empathetic, “Comforter.”
- You can read Part 4 here: What Is Biblical Empathy?
- You can read Part 5 here: The Trinity As Our Model for Empathy.
- You can read Part 6 here: Empathy Is Theological Truth.
- You can read Part 7 here: Empathy’s Companion: Encouragement to Hope in Christ Alone.
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.
The Christlike Character of the Empathetic Christian
Over the course of the past seven blog posts we’ve explored the “relational competencies” of biblical empathy—what it’s like to “climb in the casket” with a fellow sufferer. However, we have to realize that:
- Competencies or skills apart from Christlike character are like working on the outside of the cup and ignoring the more important matters of the inside (see Matthew 23:25-26).
Or, as I like to say it:
- Ministry competency without Christlike character is like one corpse practicing cosmetic surgery on another corpse (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8).
That’s why in today’s post we’ll each prayerfully ponder the question:
- “What type of person do I need to be in order to offer Christ’s sustaining comfort and empathy to others?”
Characteristic #1: Christlike Empathizers See God as Their Compassionate, Comforting Father
In Part 5 (The Trinity As Our Model for Empathy), we explored 2 Corinthians 1:3-4a:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (1:3-4a).
As we saw in that post, the Greek word for “compassion” means to feel another person’s agony—empathy. People in Paul’s day used the word to signify empathetic lament. He is the “Father” of compassion—He is known by and characterized by co-passion/empathy.
Isaiah 63:9 tells us that in all Israel’s distress, God too was distressed. God laments our pain; God aches when we ache; He weeps when we weep.
Is this our image of God when life is bad? In our suffering, do we see God as our Father who empathetically and sympathetically laments with us?
God is the “God of all comfort.” The word for “comfort” pictures God caring for us and fortifying us. He gives us His strength to endure. Paul and others used the word comfort to picture:
- A lawyer advocating for a client;
- A mother wrapping her arms of protection around her child;
- A solider standing back-to-back with a comrade in danger.
In the midst of our suffering, is this our image of God? In our suffering, do we see God as our Advocate, as our Protector, as our empathetic Ally?
- The non-empathetic Christian does not see God as their Father of compassion and their God of all comfort.
Characteristic #2: Christlike Empathizers Admit Their Own Helplessness
Sustaining comfort always starts with the person in need being willing to call out for aid, summoning help, beseeching rescue. Paul alerts us to our neediness when he tells us that God comforts us in all our troubles (1:4) “Troubles” means to press, squash, squeeze. It’s used of the pressures of life that squeeze the life out of us, that crush us—that bring us to a faith point—either we cry out to God or we retreat from God.
In a similar way, Psalms 34:17-18 tells us:
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
The world says, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The psalmist and Paul say:
“God helps those who admit they can’t help themselves. He comforts those who humbly cry out, ‘I can’t handle my suffering on my own. I need your help, Father.’”
God invites us to verbalize our suffering, our neediness.
Notice how facing our helplessness relates to comforting others.
“Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4, emphasis added).
When we are weak—admitting our powerlessness to God, crying out for His comfort—then we are strong—empowered to empower others. God comforts and empowers us in our weakness so that we can comfort and empower others in their weakness.
- The non-empathetic Christian refuses to acknowledge their spiritual weakness and desperate need for God.
Characteristic #3: Christlike Empathizers Face Their Suffering Face-to-Face with Christ
There’s a third important empathizing principle tucked away in verse four. We tend to think, “For me to help another person, I must have gone through the same situation or the identical trial.” For instance, we think, “For me to help someone struggling with alcoholism, I must have battled alcoholism in my life.”
That’s not what this verse teaches. Notice it again. “Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4, emphasis added).
- Whatever my trouble is, if I’ve taken that trouble to Christ, then his infinite comfort in my life supplies me with the power to comfort you with any trouble in your
My ability to help you is not based upon what I’ve gone through; it is based upon my going through suffering face-to-face with Christ. Because God is infinite, I do not need to experience the same situation or soul pain as you. I need to have experienced the same comforting Father in my suffering.
Paul develops his thinking further in verse 5 when he says, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”
- Only comfort-receivers spill over and overflow into comfort-givers.
When we’re the type of person who turns humbly to God in our suffering, then we become the type of person who tunes into others. We become Jesus with skin on. Then we offer small tastes of what it is like to be comforted by Christ. Of course, as we do this, we don’t point people to ourselves, we point people to Christ who is the Ultimate Comforter.
- The most powerful comfort-givers are the most Christ-dependent comfort-receivers.
- The non-empathetic Christian chooses to face their suffering without Christ-dependence.
Characteristic #4: Christlike Empathizers Share Their Sorrows with Others
Notice what happens when the body of Christ offers Christ’s empathy and comfort to one another.
“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (1:5-7).
Together we are empowered by the fellowship of Christian endurance. Or, as we described it previously, shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.
Do we believe that for others but not for ourselves? Do we encourage others to be open with the body of Christ about their struggles, but we keep our battles and wounds hidden from others?
- Powerful empathizers not only turn to Christ, they turn to the body of Christ.
Paul describes the result as patient endurance. It’s the Greek compound word, hupomeno, meaning remaining under. We can remain under pressure without giving into pressure. The word has the sense of resilience—the ability to turn setbacks into comebacks. It is more than just patience as we think of it. It is courageous endurance. It has the active significance of energetic successful resistance. It is spiritual heroism in the face of pain, the firm refusal to give in or give up, the brave determination to stop retreating and to start forging forward.
But it is not spiritual individualism. The heroic Christian is not the person who never asks for help. Instead, the heroic Christian and the effective sustaining comforter is the person who knows that they can only endure sorrow by inviting others to share in their sorrows.
- The non-empathetic Christian chooses to face their suffering without mutually depending on the body of Christ.
The Rest of the Story
It’s nearly time for us to conclude our mini-series (before it becomes a maxi-series). At this point, I’m planning two more posts, and inviting you to join me for each:
- Part 9: We’ll collate biblical descriptions and pictures of empathy, answering the question, “So what exactly is ‘empathy’?”
- Part 10: We’ll unite this entire series, drawing together “take-aways” for our lives and ministries as we explore some “Empathy Q & A.”
Join the Conversation
Though I typically like to keep things positive, it seems appropriate today to ask ourselves some hard questions about our Christlike character as empathizers. Maybe we can think of these as: An Empathy Heart Check-Up.
- Empathy Heart Check-Up 1: Does my heart show any evidence of being a non-empathetic Christian who does not see God as my Father of compassion and my God of all comfort.
- Empathy Heart Check-Up 2: Does my heart show any evidence of being a non-empathetic Christian who refuses to acknowledge my spiritual weakness and my desperate need for God?
- Empathy Heart Check-Up 3: Does my heart show any evidence of being a non-empathetic Christian who chooses to face my suffering without Christ-dependence?
- Empathy Heart Check-Up 4: Does my heart show any evidence of being a non-empathetic Christian who chooses to face my suffering without mutual dependence on the body of Christ?
The post 4 Characteristics of Christlike Empathizers: Empathy Is Biblical, Part 8 appeared first on RPM Ministries.