Moishe’s Musings: on Empathy
Empathy [from the Greek empatheia, affection, passion, from en-, in, and pathos, feeling.]
I received a phone call from Dr. Earl Radmacher, former president of Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, telling me that the February More than a Musing” about loving one’s enemies meant a lot to him. He wanted me to write a follow-up on how a Jewish believer in Jesus might be able to love Arab enemies inclined to drive Jews into the sea. When an outstanding scholar and leader like Dr. Radmacher finds merit in my writing and asks me to take it a step further, it puts me on a cloud of confidence and inspires me to write more.
The key to Dr. Radmacher’s “how to” question is empathy. As a Jew, I know what it means to be driven from our national home, to be landless, helpless, and dependent on sparse charity and the good will of others. I can imagine therefore the sufferings of others, including Arabs, and feel compassion. The key is empathy.
Yet, those who empathize only with Jews are hardened to Arabs, and those who empathize only with Arabs can’t hope to understand the situation faced by Jews. It doesn’t take godly people to empathize with those toward whom we are already sympathetic.
You won’t find the word “empathy” in the Bible, unless it’s in some new translation that I haven’t yet discovered. But empathy is essential if we would obey scriptures such as: “Love your enemies” or “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
The dictionary definition stresses intellect, describing empathy as “projecting one’s own personality into the thinking and feeling of another in order to understand them better.” But mostly empathy refers to deliberately experiencing what others feel, or at least knowing how we would feel in their circumstances.
The parables of Jesus are empathetic examples—you can feel the urgency of the shepherd who has lost one sheep. He’s not an accountant, saying, “One percent is an acceptable loss for the whole flock.” He’s a person who knows that it’s his sheep, and not only does he need that sheep, but he knows that the sheep needs him; he knows the distress a lost sheep feels.
What we see of God is that when we’re hurting, He feels our pain. When we righteously rejoice, God smiles. When we’re frightened, the Lord Himself can enter into our feelings, and I believe, through Jesus, He can even know what it means to feel fear.
I am 77 years old and have a terminal illness—I therefore take the liberty to pontificate. My fatherly advice to most ministers, most missionaries, most people who need to practice love is two words, “CULTIVATE EMPATHY.” That means that you don’t decide who deserves your empathy; rather, it becomes your habit to empathize. Try, through a sanctified imagination, to feel another person’s burden. Maybe the burden is luggage, or maybe it’s an overloaded trash can. Imagine the struggle and strain it causes. Does it hurt that person to the point of distraction? Admittedly, it’s guesswork. But as you listen to others, your guesses will come closer to reality.
When I was much younger, if I lifted something heavier than I should, my wife always seemed to choose that moment to mention something else that needed moving. Maybe her thought was, “I’m glad he’s so strong.” In any case, my grunts and perspiration seemed to signal her that as soon as I finished struggling with one load, I’d be ready for another.
As time went on, she learned that when I was lifting a load or straining, hearing about the next burden raised my despair factor, whereas a word of encouragement gave me strength. A young wife needs empathy to know that a gasp or groan doesn’t mean: “I am winning, give me more.” It means: “I almost can’t do it. Give me a break, or a kiss, or mop my sweaty brow.”
Even so, an ever-living, ever-loving God knows how you feel and won’t let anything overburden you (I Corinthians 10:13).
So, my musing is this: Whether it comes to loving enemies, or presenting duties in doable order, there are just two words: CULTIVATE EMPATHY. Or maybe Jesus said it better in three words: “Love one another.”