Though I am free and belong to no one,
I have made myself a slave to everyone,
to win as many as possible.
To the weak I became weak,
to win the weak.
I have become all things to all people
so that by all possible means
I might save some.
– 1 Corinthians
What a beautiful example of empathy Paul gives in the above passage. To be willing to set yourself aside and become like another so that by joining them you might help them in becoming healed. It is from this sort of selfless willingness to help others that true healing comes forth into the world. This is the example of Christ, it is the most basic, yet most difficult path to God. For when we have left ourselves behind and embraced the situation of another we have made a first and crucial step towards self-sacrifice and a holy life.
A good test to see if you have empathy is to notice how you are affected when you are in a conflict with someone. If the situation affects you twice, once from your own suffering and twice by empathy for the suffering of the person who hurt you, then you have empathy. If all you are thinking about is how you have been wronged then your heart is yet selfish and your suffering has been in vain for it has failed to embody the nature of Christ’s suffering, which is for others.
Whenever we suffer we are given a choice to turn it around and make it for someone else. So long as we are suffering for others it has meaning and purpose. So if someone attacks you empathize with why they are feeling the need to do that. Put yourself in their place and don’t think about what you would do in their situation, but instead try to understand why they have done what they have done.
Try to understand how a person gets to the place of living in sin or sadness instead of criticizing them for not be healthy or happy. Even if your criticisms are purely internal and you do not express them they still fester inside of you and draw you away from God who exists in a state of pure mercy and compassion.
Inwardly, empathy brings us closer to those people around us and, as God is made manifest in his creation, it brings us closer to God as well. When we can learn to feel both the pain and the joy of every creature we come across we open our eyes to that of God in all things. When we can share in the triumph of a child who has managed to zip up their coat for the first time and realize that while it seems small to us, it is a momentous occasion for them and share in their joy with exuberance and excitement we validate their success and give them confidence to continue to overcome the challenges of life.
When we can empathize with the colony of ants whose city has just been washed away by a trickling stream and not see it as a few little bugs but a massive natural disaster which has killed hundreds and left an entire city homeless, then we have come closer to God – for surely our trials seem equally as insignificant to him, yet his love for us and concern for our minuscule problems never ceases.
It is in seeing the world through the eyes of others that we are able to step out of our closed little worlds and experience the vastness of creation. We can only understand life through our experiences and so if we limit our experiences we limit our ability to grasp the vastness of God’s world. For God has made an entirely unique world contained within the perception of every mind.
Even though we are sitting here in the same church at the same moment my experience is very different from yours, and yours from everyone else here. There are numerous versions of life happening simultaneously here right now. And if you consider all the life which we share this earth with we can begin to realize the diversity of truth all around us. The deer sees a very different island than the crane who understands this place very differently than I do, and I see a different island than each of you. And so if we want to live fully in the world as it is and not merely as we are then we must practice empathy. We must, like Paul, become all things.
To join people in their situations is a divine thing. It is the very thing that Jesus did when he came to earth. He came to see life from our perspective, he opened his mind to seeing the world in a way that was completely foreign to him and he empathized with the people he found here.
He was born like us, he grew up like us, he laughed with us and cried with us, and he eventually died with us. And we, as disciples of Christ, must be willing to do the same. When he looked down from Heaven surely he saw a world that was full of despair, tyranny, corruption, and all sorts of unworthy activities. Yet he did not cast down righteous judgement – instead he decided to sit with us, to come down to our level so that we might be raised closer to his.
And this is a very important example for us to live in our own lives. When we see people who are living in a way that upsets us we can easily cast judgement upon them and refuse to be seen with them. Or, we can be like Jesus and have the compassion and empathy to try to understand how life is for them. To join them, to laugh with them, to cry with them, to suffer, and rejoice with them.
It is only when we are willing to immerse ourselves in the sin of the world that we are truly able to heal it. We can never eliminate it from a distance, we can never pass righteous judgement from afar and make positive change. Jesus sat with tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, Gentiles, and anyone who was around him. Even those who he did not agree with he had compassion for. I like the way Barbara Kingsolver put it when she said:
Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It’s the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own
Now, this does not mean accepting injustice for the sake of being inclusive. Jesus may have loved all the people and sat with them but he also turned the tables of the money lenders in the temples. When they turned the temple into a den of robbers he was there to drive them out with ferocity. But when the day came that they nailed him to the cross his last words were words of beautiful and compassionate empathy: “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do”.
Here is pure empathy, he stepped aside from his own pain and suffering, and unrighteous suffering at that, and put himself in the place of those crucifying him. He had the scope of vision and the perspective to acknowledge that they really weren’t aware of the situation at hand and were only doing the best they could with what they had at the time.
Instead of condemning them for doing what was wrong he realized that they were products of their environment and that while they were responsible for their actions there was also room for patience as they had their own situations, upbringings, and cultural contexts to work through.
I don’t know if I could bring myself to pity them and their confusion the way Christ did. I don’t know that I could hang there from the cross and pray for their forgiveness and see them as lost and confused instead of evil and corrupt. But it is the lofty goal which we all must strive for.
Imagine what a beautiful world we would live in if everyone could have the same patience and understanding as Jesus showed in that moment. Imagine if we taught empathy in school as something important right next to reading, writing, and arithmetic. I think that emotional intelligence should be valued equally beside academic intelligence. I think that if there is one single quality we should work to instill in our children it is empathy. There is nothing more valuable to the human soul, there is nothing more crucial to the betterment of human society, there is nothing which can replace it and nothing which can take away from it.
We have developed and honed our scientific skills and technological advancement yet we have failed to keep pace with our spiritual development. And this is a very dangerous way to walk. We are like children who are playing with a chainsaw. The chainsaw isn’t inherently evil, in fact it is very useful, but without the maturity to use it wisely it is dangerous beyond measure.
I believe that this is how we are as a species today. We have the ability to destroy all life on earth by pushing a few buttons yet we have not developed the ability to realize we should not be building bombs. We have created the ability to alter the very genetics which create life, yet we are still ruled by greed and corruption. I like the way Martin Luther King Jr described this phenomenon:
When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.
So we must start practicing our empathy. We must step out of ourselves periodically and realize that we are not seeing the world how it is, but instead we are seeing the world how we are. For in this the message of the Gospel will begin to come to fruition. We will begin to forgive, love, and have compassion for all of God’s creatures, whether big or small, right or wrong, similar or foreign, and we will be able bring peace to the Earth by being affected by both the pain and joy of all the people of the world.
So when someone laughs, laugh with them. When someone cries, cry with them. When someone is lost in the darkness wander out to find them and risk getting lost. Embrace the world as it is, instead of how you think it should be, and perhaps you will find that others begin to do the same. When the shepherd loses one sheep he looks for it until it is found. He does not count his losses and continue.
There can be no one left behind in the monumental task of the building of the Kingdom of Heaven. Either we all get there together or none of us get there at all. And so relate to one another, see yourself in the homeless beggar, in the champion athlete, in the cashier at Tim Horton’s, the person who drives by you on the highway, and yes even in the sinner.
See yourself in the thief, the liar, the negligent parent, and realize that but by the grace of God you could be there yourself. See in them the potential for greatness, see in the liar an honest man and in every sinner see a saint. Oscar Wilde once said that “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future” and I believe he was absolutely right -so be compassionate as you walk this turbulent road of life and be kind – for every person you meet is fighting a battle you may know nothing about and most importantly remember that we are all in this thing together and we need each other if we are ever going to find pur way to the new Eden.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.