Suffering 101: Empathy Development

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In 2020, I great increasingly aware of my lack of empathy. I will be the first to admit that I am not the most empathetic person. Some of my friends are great at empathy and can easily put themselves in the shoes of another. These are great friends to go to when you just need a good cry—I’m not one of them.

Last year, as things started to close down and people got more uncomfortable, isolated, and fearful, I think our cultural capacity for empathy also decreased. My guess is that this was likely out of self-preservation—after all, we can only handle so much at one time. But I wonder how long we’re going to continue in this unempathetic, “everyone for themselves” mindset.

Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus was compassionate to the people he was with. He saw the crowds and showed them mercy. He didn’t overlook the needs of others but sought to meet them. He was even patient and kind to the disciples, extending them so much grace, even when they weren’t gracious to others.

A few days ago, we discussed how suffering might increase our awareness of the communal body of Christ. My suspicion is that suffering also stretches our ability to empathize with those around us.

“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1:5-7 (ESV)

It amazes me that Jesus chose to become like us. He made the deliberate choice to enter into our world, take on our frailty, and experience life as we do. How incredible is that! As a result of his suffering, we can experience comfort. We aren’t alone in our pain or difficulties; he is with us in the midst of them. More than that, we know that other believers around the world are suffering as well at the exact same moment.

As I’ve been thinking about suffering, I keep wondering if our empathy is proportional to our level of suffering. Maybe empathy is difficult for some of us because we haven’t suffered all that much. If you’ve always had more than enough, it’s difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is experiencing severe lack. Maybe because our lives have, in some ways, been relatively easy, we don’t know how to connect with those who are struggling.

1 Peter is an incredible book of the Bible that I highly recommend reading when you get a chance. It’s so densely packed with wisdom that you could probably camp out in that one chapter for a month and still discover something new every single day.

1 Peter 2:20 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

As we continue to pursue Jesus, we will suffer like him. And, as we suffer, we will become more like him. Jesus was perfectly loving, compassionate, forgiving, and kind to those around him. While I know that I will never be perfect, I wonder if the refining fire of suffering for Christ might be an essential part of the sanctification process that the American church is largely missing out on.

Do you think there’s a correlation between empathy and suffering?

How do you think the American church might change if we chose the uncomfortable way of Jesus?

To go Deeper: Read Listening and Loving, It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint

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