The incarnation of Christ as a human being is a matchless expression of empathy within the heart of the Trinity, which makes empathy one of the preeminent Christian attributes. To live incarnationally is to manifest empathy to those around us.
The author of the article Empathy and the Incarnation writes,
If we view empathy as understanding and sharing in another person's experience, as the popular expression puts it, to "walk a mile in another's shoes," then I think we are completely justified interpreting the Incarnation in terms of empathy, for that is precisely what it means; Empathy goes to the very heart of Christianity. The incarnation was the supreme act of empathy. God chose to identify with us, put himself "in our shoes" by becoming a human.
In reference to Jesus, the Gospel of John explains, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)
The author of Hebrews observes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)
There is an important difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling sadness for someone without personally connecting with them. It is feeling sad at a distance. Empathy can be defined as entering into another person’s experience by drawing close, listening intently, and validating their right to feel the way they do. It is seeking to see things from the other person’s perspective and offering non-judgmental support.
Empathy is more than the ministry of presence. It is something active. It is both entering into the other person’s experience and expressing your understanding of their feelings back to them.
Empathy is not about us or our opinions. It is not about imposing our perspective or value system. It offers an opportunity for the other person to open up in a safe atmosphere without fear of condemnation or rejection. It allows them to share honestly and express burdens they have been harboring alone. Sharing lightens the burden. Sharing eases the pressure, the hurt, the anxiety, that has been building up within.
Simply listening and affirming is all that is needed. Nothing more has to be added. The process is simple yet very profound. Small acts of empathy can be huge. Empathy says, “I am paying attention. I see you. I hear you. You are important to me. You matter.”
I am reminded of the following quote from Larry Crabb, “Tears without an audience, without someone to hear and care, leave wounds unhealed. When someone listens to our groaning and stays there, we feel something change inside us. Despair seems less necessary; hope begins to stir where before there was only pain.”
There are two major mistakes that Christians often make in their desire to help someone who is hurting. One book calls these mistakes “Empathy Busters.”
Empathy Buster #1 – Offering advice.
Offering advice is actually one of the quickest ways to get the other person to clam up.
I remember a time as a pastor when I was really sick. Not the hospital admission type of sick, but plenty miserable nonetheless. Pounding headache, incessant coughing, stinging sore throat, head snapping sneezes, general body aches. There was no way I would be able to preach in my church on Sabbath morning. Fortunately, I was able to find a last minute sub.
My wife chose to attend the worship service since there was nothing more she could do for me at the time. At 1:00 pm she arrived back home and entered my sick room with the news that someone at church had given her some advice for me - a sure-fire cure for what ailed me.
“It’s going to be great!” she explained. “Just do what I say. I’ll try to follow the steps as best I can.” I would usually be highly skeptical of home-cures, but misery had weakened my resistance. With an unwarranted air of self-confidence, my wife began barking out orders.
“First comes the hot bath.” She opened the hot all the way with barely a trickle of cold.
“Now get in,“ she instructed. I stuck a toe in and instantly pulled away. “It’s practically boiling!” I complained.
“Stop being such a sissy,” she admonished. “They said it has to be as hot as possible.” I forced myself in and started to cook. Three minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.
“OK, that should be enough. Now stand up,” my wife ordered. I looked like a boiled lobster at Hank’s Fish Market.
“Stand right there in the tub,” she continued. “Don’t move. I need to go and get some ice.” She returned with a bag of frozen peas.
“This is all I could find, but it’ll have to do.” She began rubbing the bag of peas on my bare chest.
Within less than a minute I felt light-headed. I leaned forward, grasped the edge of the tub, and started to lose consciousness. A part of my life passed before me (roughly August 10, 1955 to November 5, 1960) before I tumbled forward onto the tile floor and black out completely.
My wife immediately jumped into action and did what she had learned from the movies…she began slapping me around. Unable to rouse me, she decided to drag her dead weight husband to the nearby bedroom and somehow pulled me up onto the bed. When I awoke a few minutes later, I was glad to be alive.
That afternoon, several concerned church members called with more advice. I heard a laundry list of other people’s illnesses and cures, from chicken soup to CBD. They told me about what helped uncle Vinny, cousin Betty, sister Judith, aunt Amy, Joe from work, Bob from next door, Tom the plumber, and on and on. The callers were sincere and well meaning, but I only felt more tired and sicker.
I was done with advice. I clammed up and simply mumbled things like, “Uh huh.” “Interesting.” “No kidding.” “Really?” “You don’t say.” “Oh my.” “Isn’t that something.”
Finally, my head elder, Tim, called and opened by saying, “Pastor, I’m so sorry for what you are going through. Getting sick like that must really suck! Tell me about what’s going on.” No advice. No cures. No attempt to fix me.
“This thing came on so suddenly. I haven’t been this sick in years.” (sneeze) (cough) (sniffle)
“It must be very frustrating,” he replied.
“You got that right. I was hoping to take my family to the beach tomorrow but that’s out. I think I might have been working too many hours doing those seminars and my immune system is probably out of whack.”
“Yeah, that can certainly happen.”
“To be honest, I’ve been feeling a little down emotionally,” I shared. “Not sure why.” (cough)
“That kinda sucks too. My heart goes out to you."
“Well Tim, I better let you go. Thanks so much for calling. I actually feel a little bit better now.”
Tim was the only one who offered true empathy. He simply listened and affirmed my feelings. He paid attention exclusively to what was going on inside of me without injecting his own perspective or agenda. He entered into my experience and echoed back what I expressed.
In their excellent book, The Gift of Empathy, Joel P. Bretscher and Kenneth C. Haugk observe,
Rushing in and trying to fix things typically doesn’t work, and it likely leaves the [other person] feeling frustrated or unheard, as if they’re a problem to be solved rather than a person to be loved. Even in situations where the person genuinely would benefit from your help solving the problem, resist the urge to jump in with a solution or pep talk. Begin with empathy instead, caring for their emotional needs first, and wait until later to possibly discuss other actions.
Empathy Buster #2 – Offering platitudes.
Another way to get the person who is hurting to clam up is to offer religious platitudes. Here is my personal list of awfuls:
"I know just how you feel."
"He lived a good long life."
"God won't give you more than you can bear."
Maybe God needed to get your attention."
"You really have a lot to be thankful for."
"It could have been worse."
"Look on the bright side."
"You need to move on."
"God has a plan."
"Just have faith."
"Everything happens for a reason" (quoting Rom 8:28).
"When God closes a door, He opens a window."
"Let go and let God."
"Don't worry, God is in charge."
"That same thing happened to my uncle Joe."
"I understand perfectly."
To avoid using these platitudes and others like them, I think of them as Christian swear words. The question is not whether there is any truth in these phrases or not. The point is that they are completely inappropriate when trying to empathize with someone who is hurting. The problem with platitudes is that they minimize the other person’s difficulty, pain, and struggle. Platitudes try to reduce complex issues to a slogan on a refrigerator magnet.
Micah Renck observes,
In my experience, people most often use these Christian platitudes when they don’t know what else to say and want to sound like they care in a spiritual way…Platitudes make people feel like we don’t truly hear them; we just need an obligatory phrase so we can move on. In using Christian platitudes, we often make people feel written off by throwing out a phrase instead of choosing to show up, truly listen, and be present with another person.
One person shared the following disturbing story:
Both of my parents died within the same year, and I said to a friend, ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ He responded, ‘God is testing you and making you stronger.’ I felt totally dismissed and angry. If that’s true, I don’t want to be tested. I don’t want to be stronger – I just want my parents back.
Nick Page writes of his personal reaction to religious platitudes,
I’ve come to see that these phrases really can have a damaging effect…They are escape routes for us who use them; ways to avoid the difficult work of sitting with people in their confusion or despair. Or even ways to avoid confronting our own doubts and questions.
A Better Way
So if we are not supposed to offer advice or share platitudes, how do we respond? Something like the following phrases is appropriate and effective: “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.” “Wow, that sucks. How has this impacted you?” “That sounds really hard. Tell me more about...” “Tell me what you’re feeling right now. I’m here to listen.” “That stinks.” “That must feel incredibly lonely. What has it been like for you?” “You seem really upset about that. I’d like to know what you’re thinking.” “It sounds like you’re really hurting. Tell me more.”
As an example, imagine you are a student and a friend in your class has just failed a major test or exam. Your friend is distraught because she studied really hard and still failed. Even though you got a good grade on this test, you remember what it is like to fail. You don't try to fix things for your friend. Instead, you make an empathetic statement like, "I'm so, so sorry about your grade. I know how hard you studied. You must feel very disappointed. What’s going on inside right now?"
Responding like this acknowledges the hurt and invites the person to share. As they do, you can continue to convey compassion and do your best to resonate with their experience. Like Jesus, you can weep with those who weep.
 "Empathy and Incarnation," Meat for Maturity-Discipleship.
 Joel P. Bretshcer and Kenneth C. Haugk, The Gift of Empathy (St. Louis, Missouri: Stephen Ministry, 2023) 16.
 Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997) 127.
 Joel P. Bretshcer and Kenneth C. Haugk, The Gift of Empathy, 57.
 Ibid, 62.
 Ibid, 57-58.
 Jeremy Mires, “10 Christian Cliches to Avoid Like the Plague,”.
 Nick Page, “I don’t like your platitudes: The case against Christian cliches,” Premier Christianity, March 24, 202.
 Micah Renck, “Christian Platitudes: More Harmful Than Helpful,” May 17.
 Joel P. Bretshcer and Kenneth C. Haugk, The Gift of Empathy, 147.
 Nick Page, “I don’t like your platitudes: The case against Christian cliches.”
 Kate Miller-Wilson, “Genuine Examples of Showing Empathy," YourDictionary, June 24, 2020.
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.Title Image: Mimi Thian on Unsplash
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