Jesus Christ, Lord of Empathy


Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
—Romans 12:15 ESV

I buried my parents four months apart. Losing any parent hits too close to home, but losing them so close together only amplifies the grief.

Recently, I heard that someone we know, a person much younger than me, lost parents close together. Sitting here now, that kind of grief rises up again. I know exactly how that person feels. You’re cut loose. The world seems emptier and disconnected. I know that feeling because I’ve been there.

As I mature in the Lord, I realize that no one gets a pass. You can’t walk around this planet long before you experience death, illness, betrayal, loss, and a host of other pains. Like ticks, painful realities cling to us and sap our vital energies. A sheep so afflicted can’t remove the tick on its own.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
—Matthew 9:35-38 ESV

We Evangelicals can’t cede the humanity of Jesus Christ to the mainline churches. We do a fine job of making Jesus the Christ, the Lord of All, but we tend to forget Jesus gave up His place beside the Father to take on flesh and the subsequent misery of the helpless sheep He came to save.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
—Hebrews 2:14-18 ESV

We don’t hear too much about Jesus our Brother in Evangelical circles, an incalculable loss. Jesus’ humanity drew people. They knew they could approach Him. He wasn’t distant and removed, but walked among us, giving His life away, serving others.

He did this because at the core of who He was beat a heart of empathy. The very act of incarnation forever linked the Son of God with the people He created. Incarnation embodies empathy for others. And Jesus not only displayed that empathy by taking on flesh, but by fully becoming one of us, emotions and all:

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
—John 11:32-36 ESV

For those of us who bear the image of Christ, empathy for our fellow men—be they believers or not—should permeate the core of who we are. Jesus felt Mary and Martha’s loss. The loss of a friend drove Him to tears. Even though He fully understood He could raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still showed empathy. His lesson? No one, not even the Christ, should ever walk away from another’s pain.

People who call themselves Christians, but who so readily tear into another person, display little of Christ’s empathy. Our lives should always be lived with one eye on what it means to be someone else. Ultimately, Jesus, the Lord of the Universe, did the same by becoming a man.

His empathy compels us to treat a man as if you or I were in his shoes. That empathy drives The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31 rephrasing). Only then can we humbly dispense grace to those who so desperately need it.

Lastly, the empathetic nature of God shows in one final verse:

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
—1 John 4:19-21 ESV


Empathy for others proves itself when we say we love God, and vice versa. The relationship between our love of God and our love for others cannot be severed, for empathy drives it.

As we roll into Thanksgiving and Christmas, step into someone else’s life. This isn’t a call to overlook sin and how it leads to the shattered lives of people around us, only that we show empathy first. You and I have no idea what kind of living hell a person’s been through. Better that we empathize with him or her first because we ourselves went through our own hell. Without Christ we’d all still be living that hell right now. Lead with that empathetic love. Feel someone else’s pain and truly mean it.

Christ felt ours all the way to the cross.

10 thoughts on “Jesus Christ, Lord of Empathy

  1. Dan-

    Once again you’ve picked a hard one…Last night during our worship team practice our team leader asked us what spiritual needs we had. All of us were ready to calling out the usual litany of physical needs: A friend whose baby died, another with cancer, sickness, job loss…But the infamous crickets sang loudly at the call for spiritual needs.

    We humans have two hungers. As Christians, we must be able to recognize both. Can we recognize divorce, alcohol abuse, prostitution, drug abuse, internet addiction, child abuse, racism, road rage and all the other symptoms of spiritual starvation as well as we can recognize the bloated bellies and skeletal arms of a starving child?

    Jesus did. He put his hand on the untouchable, and listened to the heart of a Samaritan woman without condemnation. His heart was for the lost, and he gave the example of leaving the 99 that were already his and to go searching for the one that was lost.

    • David,

      We’re too afraid of the spiritual needs question because answering it honestly in public means exposing the cracks in our own armor (or lack of it).

      If our churches could ever get over that hump, it would be glorious!

  2. francisco

    Empathy? Yes. Overlooking sin? No. Good points. I would only add one or two
    1. Pray that God open our/their hearts and minds to understand the whole counsel of God
    2. Our good deeds -flowing out of gratitude rather than trying to blacmail God with them- are one of the means by which others can acknowledge God and perhaps quicken to glorify Him. Here there is a good sermon by John Piper
    which he concludes this way:
    “The era of comfortable isolation for us American evangelicals is ending, because its justification is crumbling and because the misery and destitution of the world is coming too close now to ignore. And as it approaches, local churches in whom the Spirit of God dwells will feel themselves drawn to some fairly radical reorientations of lifestyle, reorientations calculated to maximize good deeds for all men and especially for those of the household of faith.(…) God willing we will not be content with minimum church. We will become a great church, a great servant church, filled with maximum good deeds in the name of Jesus. That’s the local church we have to be if we want to display the wisdom and power of God to the principalities and powers. That’s what we have to be in our new era if we want to hear a credible witness that moves people to glorify our Father in heaven. “

    • Francisco,

      That Piper quote rocks my world. It would be great if Piper, who is so admired in Reformed circles, could spearhead the kind of move he’s discussing.

      Though the 1981 date on that sermon makes me wonder what we’ve accomplished in 25 years, I still hold out hope.

    • Peyton

      Overlooking sin? No.

      The idealism of empathy falls apart right here! If I can find some “great sin” in you, then I do not have to be empathetic toward you. If you are a Liberal, a Universalist, or, gasp, a Roman Catholic, I have the right to insist that you change. I have the right not to understand you.
      Last night was the Community Thanksgiving Service. Pastors from five of the eight local congregations (not churches) participated. I hope that some day all eight will participate, so that the local church is embodied. Because is is scandalous that we workship together separately.

  3. Peter Smythe

    Dan, Jesus’s active obedience in His life of faith was a large part of the Church’s theology in the first 300 years. It appears that much of His human aspects, besides just the fact that He was man, was lost in the Arian Controversy. We would do well to return to examining His life of faith and obedience in the flesh. Also, Hebrews demonstrates that the High Priest only qualifies as High Priest by sharing in our infirmities.

  4. Something occurred to me as I was making some revisions on a study of Jonah. The whole purpose of Jonah’s exercise in humility was because of the compassion of God. We are so used to the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testement that we forget the compassion God has for the lost. In this case, the lost city of Ninevah. “Should I not be concerned?” Asked God of Jonah. Jesus said to his disciples that it was His job to do the will of the One who sent Him. God’s will is to comfort the lost. In Isaiah 58 God asks, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

    Do those lines sound familiar? Those actions, according to Jesus in Matthew 25, seperate the saved from the lost.

  5. Ramesh Kumar

    Love as empathy is the love that Jesus talks about. This love is the supreme emotion and the first step of loving is to look at someone without reaction, until you begin to empathize. The other’s mind resonates in yours and you become empathically one with the other. There ‘your self’ disappears. Your brain becomes a sensitive receiver of other’s psychological states. Relationship characterised by empathic fusion with others is the basis of creative social development.
    Love your neighbour. Love thy enemy.
    Then your self ceases to exist
    Then you enter the Kingdom of Heaven

  6. Dan your writing is excellent. May I suggest that Jesus had empathy or understand I g our pain plus sumpatheo or sympathy that allowed him to feel and carry our pain. For us empathy is usually enough and when sumpatheo occurs we need to be careful last we try to heal rather than delegate the pain to Jesus.

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