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The Skill of Empathy


Empathy literally means “to share in suffering.”


The prefix “em” is the preposition “in” (in Greek). Pathos means “suffering” or “emotion.” So “empathy” is joining in the suffering of another. It captures the meaning of “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” Be where they are. Live the life they live. See through their eyes. Feel with their heart.


While some see the word as “weak” or lacking assertiveness, I’ve suggested that “empathetic listening” is a key skill and service to our conflicted society. It requires radical courage, deeply rooted personal security and love.


I often find examples of empathetic listening in the places I least expect. The book, “Neither Wolf nor Dog” (see the past two blogs) was such a surprise. The author, Kent Nerburn, was able to set aside judgement to see through the eyes of another. He displayed an even deeper level of empathetic listening: looking at the self through the eyes of another.


Now, I’d like to address my “tribe”—followers of Jesus. Jesus followers are not the only ones who can excel at empathetic listening. In fact, we seem to be struggling to get the hang of it. Nevertheless, I suggest that followers of Jesus should be well equipped for this essential skill in our world. There are a few ingredients that contribute to this skill, which, when internalized, mold us into good empathetic listeners. I’ll briefly share two in this blog.


The first is coming to terms with how the Bible presents the reality of evil in our world. We use the word “sin” in our tribe and we tend to think of sins in personal terms, actions we need to be forgiven of as individuals. “Lord, forgive my sins…” Well and good, but it’s incomplete.


I’ll use a different word as it helps me think more broadly about it: “alienation.” In the story of the Bible, the opening chapters relate how our spiritual parents were alienated from a loving God by their own choice. That separation meant that we humans quickly became alienated from one another (e.g. Adam blames Eve) and that spread through our society. In the story of the Bible, violence and oppression spread so quickly that God regretted he had created human beings (see Genesis 6)!


Even more insidious than Covid19, everyone gets the alienation virus. Alienation is the air that we breath, the power that we live under. Our problem is not merely that we do bad stuff. Our relationship with God, the source of life, is broken. So, we interact on bad assumptions and create bad systems. As a result, we live in a bad social environment.


Our evil is not only bad things we do, but the ongoing power of humanity’s broken relationship with God—alienation. Sin is not merely individual but societal as well.


Given this reality, every Jesus follower should have a healthy skepticism of human systems, whether economic, intellectual, political, military or even religious. Every human institution is tainted to small and great degrees by human alienation from God.


If we realize this, we should not be surprised that our collective history is rife with alienation. We find ways to alienate ourselves from each other on the basis of race, gender, socio-economic status, life-stage, etc. As we get older, we realize that systems we’ve grown up in and are loyal to, have contributed to the alienation. They’ve blessed and helped us, but they’ve excluded someone who didn’t fit in. The toll on innocent people can be significant. Consider slavery as a historical example. I remember when I first learned that past leaders of my denomination defended slavery from the Bible. That forced me to rethink my loyalty to religious systems. Think of our medical insurance culture as a present-day example of inclusion and exclusion.


We’d like to think the systems we’re loyal to offer “liberty and justice for all.” The truth is, they often start with that intention, but alienation creeps in and they fail. They offer liberty and justice to some. If we’re part of the group that has gotten liberty and justice, it becomes difficult for us to recognize that it hasn’t been “for all.” In fact, we may point a finger of blame at those who claim they’ve been deprived of liberty and justice. That’s where “empathetic listening” is so critical. Our pledge of “liberty and justice for all” must motivate us to keep working to ensure that is a reality.


A second ingredient of empathetic listening is Jesus’ kingdom, which subverts total loyalty to any world system. We live in the world (its systems and cultures) but not of it. Following Jesus, means we evaluate our world and its systems from the perspective of Jesus’ kingdom. We become operatives of the Jesus-kingdom which subverts the injustice and oppression of our world’s systems.


So when the agent of Jesus’ kingdom hears a cry of “injustice,” the first response is, “I expected that. I knew holes in the system would allow alienation to creep in.” With that realization, the follower has taken the first small step to becoming a healer, a peacemaker, a mediator. Jesus sent us into the world as he was sent into the world. His life and death absorbed the evil in his person, healing humanity through reconciliation. That is ultimate empathy. We are sent into the world to do something similar. As individuals we do it on a small scale. As his society (the church) we can do it on a scale that changes the world.


I recognize these thoughts prompt reactions. So I welcome your comments. I’m happy to have a conversation about it…as long as we do it empathetically 😉.


More ingredients of empathetic listening in the next post…


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