How do you feel when you encounter someone who is in need? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Do you try and avoid eye contact and maybe even take a different route, so you don’t have a forced interaction with them? Or maybe you feel sorry for them? Is there a small part of you that wishes you could do something to help, but you have no idea what that something may be? Or do you hurt for them? Do you see the pain in their eyes and feel the sorrow on their face? Do you understand their lost look and prioritize finding some way to help?
Which category do you find yourself in? Try and be honest with yourself – this is for your eyes only.
Sometimes we unknowingly find ourselves in that first category. We may be in a hurry to get to work, late for an appointment, or just have something to do that we feel is more important. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that we’re experiencing apathy – this lack of concern and interest. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just our flawed human nature.
What happens if you find yourself in the second category? That’s not a bad thing, right? You want to help, but just don’t know how. You feel feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune, but since you don’t know what to do, you don’t really do anything. Sympathy is a step in the right direction, but with sympathy the hurting person is still at arm’s length and even though you feel sorry for them, you aren’t responsible for helping them.
But what happens when we move from sympathy to empathy? When we experience empathy, we can’t sit by and do nothing when we see another person experiencing difficulties. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves. We literally feel the other person’s suffering as if it were our own. Experiencing empathy can get messy and heavy, but it’s how Jesus calls us to love.
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” -Luke 10:25-37
We want to leave you with one challenge today: How can you offer someone the gift of receiving empathy?