In Jr. High and High School I went out with a group to do street witnessing in order to reach people for Christ – but I ended up pushing someone further away.
One evening, I was passing out “Gospel Tracks” at the Burbank Mall with a group of Christians. We were coming to the close of the evening; a preacher was shouting a final sermon into the small crowd that had gathered. I handed a gospel track to a group nearby and when I looked back one of the people had their lighter out and was burning the gospel track.
I walked up to them boldly, confident that I was advancing the Kingdom of God, and asked, “do you need another?” It opened up the conversation and they were willing to hear my spiel. I proceeded with the memorized script and asked, “Do you believe that you are a good person?”
They said yes – now it’s my turn to show them how bad and broken they really are (which totally sounds like something Jesus would say – not!).
I was about to walk them through the Ten Commandments, everyone admits to breaking at least one, and then the next line to say was, “Well the Bible says that if you have broken one, then you are guilty of breaking all.” Which is true, the Bible does say that, but I’m not sure it was intended as weapon for the “turn or burn” preacher’s tool belt.
The thing is, I never got there, because I was stopped with a question. A girl in the group asked me, “Do you have a problem with me being a lesbian?” And my response is one of my biggest regrets – I pray that someday I might meet her again so that I can ask for her forgiveness.
I had a script for that – a list of scriptures to reference. I selectively shared Bible verses and told her how much of a sinner she is. I didn’t listen; I just spewed my words onto her.
She interrupted me – then told me about time after time when she had been told by Christians that she is going to hell and that her lifestyle is shameful. I cannot forget the words she said right before she walked away, “I’ve read what you’re suppose to believe, but never once have I heard a Christian say that Jesus loves me.”
That experience broke me. I was silent on the car ride home, because I was hurt by what I said. I have cried again and again over what I said.
She is created in God’s image. Jesus loves her and I am called to love her, but instead that night I judged her and rejected her. Now I weep. I grieve the words that I said.
That night, I learned what it means to follow Christ and engage the broken – it’s to first recognize that I am even more broken. There’s a log in my eye and a speck in your eye.
That night, I didn’t just listen to those words she said, but I felt what she feels. And it reminded me of someone else who did that for me – that expressed supernatural empathy – it was Jesus.
The story of supernatural empathy.
The Christmas story – I’m guessing you’ve heard that story before – is a story of supernatural empathy. God becoming man and experiencing what we experience, feeling what we feel.
Jesus saw a women weeping and the Bible said, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus participated in her experience. He did not remain distance, but willingly chose to feel what she feels.
Hebrews 4:15 describes this supernatural empathy, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin” (NIV). Jesus emptied himself and came in human likeness (Philippians 2:6-7). He came with humility, to serve and ultimately to give his life so that we might have relationship with the Father.
That night I experienced empathy too late, the damaging tone and words had already left my mouth, but I can let that experience and the Bible inform how I act going forward.
Empathy, can transform our voice in the world as Christians. We can still stand our ground on the truth, while being compassionate and considerate of people’s experiences. We can hear people’s stories.
Christians are called to live empathetically.
Marijuana legalization, the death penalty, and grocery bags – there’s a good chance you and I voted differently on at least one of those propositions. I have different friends and family members who have taken passionate stances on each side of those issues. They not only believe that they are “in the right”, but that the Bible is “on their side.”
We attack each other on Facebook and criticize each other in person for “missing the point”. Our nature is to burrow down deep in our experiences, to live according to our entrenched assumptions, but we end up with emotional tunnel vision. We have to be willing to suspend our past experiences, to peak out from our hole and make an effort to feel what someone else feels.
I’m not talking about moral relativism. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong. I’m talking about recognizing the person committing the wrong is a human with a story.
That human, with a story, does not have to be perfect before they can experience God’s grace (and thank goodness because I would not be qualified). Perfection is not a pre-requisite to salvation and it’s absolutely not a pre-requisite to being loved by Christians.
Instead, of demonizing the person on the other side of the table or social network, what if we considered that they might have legitimate concerns and experiences that lead them to where they are today?
Henri J.M. Nouwen, a priest and professor, said it this way, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
This Christmas, we can make a transformational impact when we express a counter-cultural and supernatural empathy – like Jesus.
Would you join with me in choosing to not demonize the person on “the other side”, but instead hear their story and make an effort to feel what they feel?
Let's give empathy for Christmas.
"Thank you for the conversation and friendship as we figure out how to live out our faith."
- Brandon Maddux (author)