It is a sentiment I hear quite often:
“Man, I never thought about women have to deal with every day until I had a daughter, but now…”
“I’ve never thought about how hard it is for people in hurricane zones, but I have relatives in Texas, and ever since that last one came through…”
“My cousin was diagnosed with lupus and ever since then, every time I meet someone with lupus, I just want to reach out to them. It’s so hard.”
We are really, really good at empathizing with people about things that are near to us: that have happened to those we love, those we care about, those who matter to us. I have some family members who are cancer survivors, and so I have a special soft spot for cancer survivors. I’m an only child, so I immediately feel a kinship with other only children. We base our friendships and our little communities, often, on some form of likeness – and empathy and understanding grows from that.
It isn’t wrong to feel or to learn empathy in that way: what I call “empathy after the fact.” It’s natural. When something intrudes into our little corner of the world and disrupts our lives and our routines, we pay attention to it. When it impacts our lives, if only indirectly, we learn to care about it, to experience the way it might feel for others. That’s often how we end up with our crusaders and our dreamers: people who fight and work on behalf of those for whom they have developed empathy, often through an experience or an encounter.
But if we only ever feel empathy after the fact, then we have a problem.
The Bible tells us that empathy is to be our starting point. Romans 12:15 tells us to rejoice with those rejoicing, and to weep with those who weep. Jesus commands the disciples to “love each another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). And according to Him, the greatest commandment is this:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Caring about other’s hurts as though they were our own, sharing in other’s joys as though they were our own: this is the hallmark of the Christian mindset. It is the beginning of a life lived in service to God. This is the way that we are meant to orient ourselves to the world, and it occurs not because of an experience or an encounter, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit on the heart.
It’s certainly true that encountering something in our personal lives or through someone near to us has a distinct and particular effect. But if we can only ever feel empathy after that happens, then we have a spiritual condition that needs examining. If you have no ability to empathize with the sorrows, pains, struggles and hurts of others without first experiencing them yourself, that shows there’s a problem.
I know a woman who routinely writes gentle letters to women and men in prison. She has never been to prison herself, nor have any of her close friends or family ever been in prison. She’s never worked there, never had any particular personal reason to be involved with those people, but she writes because God has cultivated an empathy in her heart for them: she wants to reach out. It didn’t take a close family member being arrested for her to act; the Spirit worked in her.
A little girl in our neighborhood has recently been walking around collecting donations for the homeless. She is eight years old. She doesn’t know anyone homeless, has never even seen a homeless person before – but she found out that there were people who were without houses, and they were cold in the winter, and now she’s collecting blankets for them. Thanks to a local charity who found out about her efforts, she is going to get to deliver some of those blankets personally. She has empathized with people without ever meeting them – because the Holy Spirit is working in her.
I think it’s worth it for all of us to exercise our “empathy muscle” – not just when something happens to people we know or touches us personally, but even in situations that don’t affect us, that we don’t always understand, and when we don’t know the people involved. That’s the heart of Christ: to reach out, to love, to serve. Not after the fact, but before. And always.