Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cultivating Empathy

In my last post, I spoke of how I believe the main problem in the church to be a lack of humility - or to put it another way: pride.  Now of course I do not believe that this applies to all churches in America, I just believe this is the number one threat to Western Christianity, generally speaking.  But one might ask me: how do we go about solving such a problem?  What is the game plan?

I think that what the church should do is to focus on cultivating empathy.  Empathy is the way by which we take the focus off of ourselves and put it on the suffering of others.  Empathy is the way that we observe the suffering of others and in some sense feel that suffering ourselves.  Empathy is what drives us to then seek solutions for this suffering.

In Romans 12:15, the Apostle Paul instructs us to "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."  We are not to invalidate those who mourn - empathy does not look at those who mourn and say to them: "you big baby!  Toughen up!"  No, empathy seeks to understand the sorrow of the other and to feel it with them.  When we are only thinking of ourselves and our own importance, we are unable to truly understand the sorrow of others, and as a result we will belittle them.  So, to counter this, we must seek to understand those around us and to understand their sorrow.  

Philippians 2:3 says:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

By placing significant value on others, we can learn to empathize with them.  When I became a father for the first time, I had a striking revelation when I realized that I cared so deeply for my son that if anything were to happen to him, it would hurt me far more deeply than if anything were to happen to me.  This was because I valued him more deeply than I valued myself.  I considered his well-being to be my responsibility, and I considered my own well-being to be a secondary responsibility to this.  In order to cultivate empathy for others, we must do the same: we must put their well-being ahead of our own.

Jesus gives us another very important clue for cultivating empathy:

Matthew 7:12
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

In order to cultivate empathy for others, we must learn to see ourselves in their position and seek to understand what our desires would be within their position.  We must "walk a mile in their shoes", as the old saying goes.  In order to love others, we must understand them!  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers:

In Buddhism we learn that understanding is the very foundation of love. If understanding is not there, no matter how hard you try, you cannot love. If you say, “I have to try to love him,” this is nonsense. You have to understand him and by doing so you will love him. One of the things I have learned from the teaching of the Buddha is that without understanding, love is not possible. If a husband and wife do not understand each other, they cannot love each other. If a father and son do not understand each other, they will make each other suffer. So understanding is the key that unlocks the door to love.

This is difficult for us, because we spend so much time drawing caricatures of those we disagree with.  We set up straw man arguments that paint those we disagree with as ridiculous, and then we mock them using these false images.  We dehumanize those we disagree with when we do this, and we make it easier to view them with hostility in the process.  If we see them as human, and we see their viewpoints as being reasonable and valid given the evidence they have seen, we cannot remain hostile towards them.  And this is dangerous to our system of views, because in the process of understanding those we disagree with, we may change.  But this is the dangerous nature of love - love seeks the best for all, even if this comes at the cost of "me". 

I John 4:7-8 says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

If we wish to know God, we must start with cultivating empathy for those around us.  We must see through their eyes, and feel their sorrows.  We must turn our enemies into friends through the power of love, for this is the only way to understand the heart of God - because the very nature of God is love itself!


  1. Check out baxter kruger web site.....Perichoresis or watch his many YouTube s........god is love, love is relational ,apart from an understanding of god as Trinitarian god he could not be loving , he could only love himself (self love) total opposite of christ (self giving love) hence the relationship father/son/holy spirit and now since Pentecost the giving of the Spirit to all flesh.........and now we are adopted in to this awesome communion/relationship..... and when did this happen ? Ephesians 1 tells us this happen before the foundations of the world........ hence the great comic/divine dance of which we and all creation "in Christ"are a part of. Or check out wetiko, indigenous name for evil paul levy.."Dispelling Wetiko" breaking the spell of evil.....a lot of parallels to michael hardin rene Girard "the satan".......just some food for thought.....ps thank you! thank you! thank you! for your blog you have given so much water for my thirst soul.........empathy compassion love and may I add no b.s. is what comes across on your blog......thanks again