Reflections on Empathy


No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

 

~ Theodore Roosevelt

I was thinking the other day about the American Indian saying that encompasses the idea of empathy, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.” There are variations on this saying, but they all have pretty much the same point. It is difficult, if not impossible, to really judge someone until you have experienced what they have. It is not enough to sympathize, you must empathize, really understand what they have gone through and felt.

While my emphasis is not about laws and criminals, there is a certain leniency given to criminals whom we can empathize with:

30 Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry;

31 But if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.

32 But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.

 

~ Pr 6:30-32

We can even empathize with those whom lack in understanding:

47 And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

48 But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

 

~ Lk 12:47-48

The point is that even the one who was hungry or who did not know are not without excuse, but they should not be treated as harshly as one who was in a better position either because of their status in finances or understanding.

That is the application of empathy even in justice.

However, my meditations were upon a different angle. Suffering is a universal constant. Even those who are deemed well-off, of esteemed value, idolized or otherwise held up by public opinion are not without their own problems. That is something easy to forget.

Then, what of the man who suffers even when trying to do good? Many people in this world are punished in spite of trying to build orphanages, lend a hand or otherwise trying to make the world a better place.

Then again, what of Christians? Jesus promised trials and tribulations. Paul wrote extensively about his own trials and warned about the trials of others.

When we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we have a better appreciation for what they are going through. However, it might take more than a mile. One variation of the saying is, “Don’t judge a man until you walk two moons in his moccasins.” Time can give us more of an appreciation of the state of things than can distance.

Why do some trials last so long? Why do we sometimes simply trade one set of problems for another? Could it be that it takes time for us to get the message?

15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

 

~ Heb 4:15

It should give us comfort to know that Jesus was tempted in all points as even we are. We know He suffered to pay for our sins, but was there another reason?

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

10 For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

 

~ Heb 2:9-10

Could Christ really have empathy for us if He had not Himself experienced suffering firsthand? I highly doubt it. The same could be said of us!

10 But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.

 

~ 1Pe 5:10

It’s the same process! Why? So we can be righteous judges filled with empathy!

If it applied to Christ, Who was God in the flesh, how much more should it apply to us?

If God is love, as the Bible claims, then it all makes sense. Love without empathy is not love at all.

The ancient Gnostics and Pharisees had one trait in common: They both viewed themselves as better than the “unwashed masses” who did not agree with them. They were self-righteous and filled with pride. Such an attitude crowds out empathy.

The New Testament instead emphasizes humility and esteeming others more than one’s self. The entire story of Christ coming and dying for us is nothing less than a story of love and empathy.

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