“Am I really so awful?” laments Jillian. Busy with holidays, she’s been asked by every store’s check out, “Do you want to give a dollar to feed a hungry family this Christmas?” What a question?!? Jillian feels that she has lots to be thankful for this year. She’s trying to feel for all those in her life who seem to be hurting. One friend lost her husband and mother this year! And between the news on TV, the many prayer requests coming through church lines, and feeling spent getting her family’s Christmas ready, she is feeling guilty for not feeling the pain of others. “I know I need more empathy for others!”
After quoting to me the verse of scripture that says, “Weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn,” I started to feel kind of guilty myself. Then came this heaviness. Maybe I too am not feeling the pain of others enough! Is my own heart calloused and stony? Thanks a lot Jillian!
Seriously, whenever God’s call on me seems too heavy, I re-examine what He’s saying to me. At such times I find, that I’ve often added to God’s word, making His yoke, burdensome. Following Jesus should not be unbearable. Jesus said to the weary:
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Have you ever felt that the Lord’s burden and yoke were not easy or light? If so, it may be that the burden you are carrying is not His. Looking back at those weeping and mourning verses for instance: Paul is not asking you to empathize with anyone.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
Here, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice, are not extra commands from God. These are outcomes of being in a faith filled community. Paul has been writing a long letter to the fellowship of believers in Rome. He is addressing people who are already in community. When you are a people who share faith in God; facing persecution for it, while encouraging one another to remain strong and godly amidst opposition, you will naturally hurt when others among you hurt. And you are going to be happy for those among you, who are blessed. The key is being devoted to one another in community. Not just attending a church; but being devoted to the community of believers there.
The problem with quoting verses out of context is that they can seem like an isolated command of God. Paul rather, is exhorting the faithful to be so even more. Our faith is working to make us more Christ-like, and we are to spur one another on and to encourage one another in this work God is doing. Paul is just encouraging believers to live out their faith.
God doesn’t ask us to empathize with others. Though every human culture seems to have a “Walk in his shoes” saying, God is not the one pushing empathy. Why would He? His calling is infinitely higher! Empathy is self-centered. Just consider the mechanics. Rather, God calls us to to be “devoted to one another in brotherly love.” That does not require or involve empathy. When you are devoted to one another, empathy is just silly. And it is to such a devoted group of believers that Paul is exhorting.
Wanting to put a dollar in to help those you don’t know is fine. It is nice of you. And certainly when the cashier asks you, “Would you like to help feed a hungry family this year at Christmas?” it can feel awkward to just say, “Nope!” Especially if you are wearing your fish pin and WWJD bracelet! But empathizing isn’t going to help anyone.
At my mom’s funeral, I found myself having to console two people at different times, who were sobbing. I didn’t even know who they were! On further inquiry, they hardly knew my mom! They were empathizers, saying how they could just imagine what losing their mother would be like. God’s grace was on me that day, because my mom died. These folk didn't have His grace on them, cause they were upset at their own mother's deaths, which had not even happened! If my mom were there, she’d have slapped them.
Who asked these people to imagine how they’d feel if their mother’s died? Not God. Probably some talk-show host told them to. I didn’t even know them, and they hardly knew my mom! We weren’t in community. So in order to work up the tears, they had to empathize with me, imagining what it would be like to have lost their own moms. A better way, when nobody is looking, is to simply pull a hair out of your nose. Either way gets the tears going, and they have about the same value. Empathy delivers the tears, but not the love. The empathizing person is thinking about them selves. Devotion to community develops the love that will probably result in tears when those you've come to care about are truly hurting.
God has called His children to be ministers of truth. We cannot do that, if we are empathizing and imagining things. We are to be clear minded, eager to minister to those truly hurting. The people who ministered most to me that day, recognized that I had God’s grace and pointed it out to me; reminding me that God was with me. We are to think true thoughts always:
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
I know these folk at the funeral meant to help. That was cool of them. But had they not been imagining, they could have been sober in judgment, and seen that others there were needing counsel.
“But Tom, what about this verse?” My “King James only” friend, quoted me, concerning having compassion for those suffering:
“But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
1 John 3:17
After a discussion on how people “in sundry times” sure loved one another funny, I thought I should check this verse out. My Bible has it as:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
I’m not a very good actor. I suppose some folk can work up pity. But can they do it in truth, and without empathizing? In context, John is not writing this to people who don’t know each other. He is talking to people who are in community. He is talking to people whom “the world hates,” and John is encouraging them to live lives devoted to one another. The community he wrote were being attacked for their faith; some losing property, and others being killed because of their belief in Christ. They were facing persecution! And they were together, devoted to one another. When you are in close community with such folk, believe me, you won’t have to work up pity.
God works in the heart, and love results. Unspiritual people slap rules down on each other, to produce the appearance of love; in this case tears around crying people. God gives compassion, and unspiritual man advises empathy. Once we are in community, committed to one another, living according to truth, with our mission to reach the world for Jesus, despite the cost to ourselves, each of us being changed into the image of Christ, we will naturally rejoice with one another, or hurt with one another. Real friends and family just do that. Being transformed is not a painless process.
Remembering the poor is a very good thing. Paul writes:
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
Jesus said we’d have the poor among us always. Ministering to them doesn’t require feelings. We should do so in truth; not waiting till our feelings of “how would it feel if I were poor,” come.
Feelings of compassion come when you are in community, and when those you are devoted to, suffer. So plug into your community of faith-filled folk. The compassion will come naturally. Or as some of my friends would say, your bowels will simply open up by themselves.
Oh come on!
You knew that was coming!