/ suffering, sympathy, empathy, redemption / Rut Etheridge III

A Sympathy for Empathy

As I’m writing this, some dear friends of mine are continuing to endure Job-caliber suffering.  The worst of it, as is the case with all the suffering in this life, is that their personal pain involves their children.  Both parent and child are suffering life- threatening ailments that even the best medical care hasn’t yet been able to explain.  This has caused, for years now, the stress and the strain of never knowing when a beloved child will suddenly lapse into terrifying seizures, or a loving parent be taken to the hospital, again, for forced and extended time away from family.  It’s been trauma after trauma; times of reprieve are relatively rare.  These dear friends could have a serious sit down with Job and understand one another quite well.  Their faithful perseverance through circumstances which can and do drive others away from the faith has shown me so much of the very real power of the resurrected Christ, and it’s also shown me new dimensions and depths of our Savior’s heart.  I’ll frame these thoughts in terms of sympathy and empathy.    

In my situation, I can sympathize but not empathize with my friends.  My family and I haven’t been through anything like what they’re enduring.  But as a dad I definitely know the feeling of watching, helpless, as my child suffers.  A parent’s heart assumes the same posture whatever the severity of a son or daughter’s suffering – we just want so badly to take the pain in the place of our beloved children.  If someone has to suffer, let it be me, not them!  

When a child suffers, all the expressions of sympathy and all the medical care and the offers of help from friends are wonderful and needed, but what I always think about is that none of us can actually be that suffering child.  That suffering child is the one enduring it all, the one who may be thinking “Why me?” or “Not again …” or “Will I die?” or even, if the suffering is bad enough, “I want to die.” I can do absolutely nothing to know that pain from my children’s perspective, much less to lift it from them and bear it myself.  But I’d do it in a heartbeat if it were possible.  I can help them in some ways, but in no way can I actually be them.  

In a sense, that’s good.  If I were them, they wouldn’t be them anymore, and “them” is indescribably precious and absolutely irreplaceable.  Yet I want so badly to come so close, to move past sympathy and into empathy.  And yes, I’m thinking here ultimately about what God did in Jesus.  Looking upon the world and the wreck our sin has made of it, he wasn’t content with sentiment and sympathy.  He actually became one of us.    

God, of course, understands the human condition far more than any of us ever will.  In Jesus, he understands us literally in the flesh.  Christ is both like us and unlike us, and it takes both attributes for him to save us.  He committed none of our sins, but suffered all of their guilt.  

Every emotion you’ve felt, the Lord has felt.  I don’t know how that works, exactly. I do know that he’s felt your emotions and mine without the taint of sin.  But that only means that unlike us, Jesus has felt what it is to be fully, uncompromisingly, relentlessly human, an image-bearer who never fell.  He knows empathetically what it’s like to hurt as a human, but moving beyond what you or I can experience, he experienced the pains of a fallen world in the holiest and most holistic manner possible.  What he never experienced was the corrupt and corrupting responses you and I daily conceive and enact as we face trial and temptation.  He endured to the end, unstained by rebellion against his Father’s law.  He was tempted in every way we are, but remained without sin (Hebrews 4).  

As adopted, beloved sons and daughters of God, siblings of Jesus Christ, we are called to live as he did in this fallen world, learning sympathy as we suffer and ever straining toward empathy.  We will never be our Savior, nor is any Christ-like suffering we endure ever identical to what Jesus endured and accomplished as the unique son of God, the spotless substitutionary sin-bearer.  Jesus calls us to take up our own cross, not to carry his.  But as Paul puts it so personally and poetically, it is the cry of the maturing Christian heart to come as close as possible in life to what the Savior endured and experienced in this world, through whatever times and circumstances the Lord would allot us (Philippians 3).  

We are to seek empathy with Christ not in the sense of trying to mimic particular actions of his or trying to recreate historical circumstances and cultural conditions long past.  We want to approach empathy with the Savior by having a heart made increasingly like his, filled with affections taught by God’s word and flowing forth in words and actions which draw attention to the glory and goodness of our heavenly Father (Philippians 2).  

Paul tells us in Philippians 3 that he wants to know Christ, both in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering.  Indeed, we often experience the power of Christ’s resurrection most truly and tangibly in the midst of our suffering the trials he calls us to endure for his sake.  This is the case with my friends, and with countless other Christian sufferers throughout history.  

None of this is to even come close to suggesting that only Christians suffer, or that Christians by definition suffer more severely than others, much less that only Christians suffer nobly and admirably.  I wish that could go without saying, but sometimes Christian discourses on suffering can seem self-important and forgetful or dismissive of the pain shared by those who don’t share our faith and who endure that pain in an exemplary way.  At the risk of falling into that same trap of self-importance, however, there is something unique not only about the purpose and principles of Christian suffering, but about the Christian’s capacity with regard to suffering.  

An oncologist is every bit as subject to cancer as those whom she treats.  And yet when the blood tests come back bad after her own personal annual checkup, there is an added dimension to her dread.  She understands more fully than most of her own  patients the disease with which she’s been afflicted; she knows its nature and devastating potential.  She won’t hurt any worse than they do, but she understands more fully than they why and how such biological insidiousness develops within people, and in this way she understands to relatively unique depths what the fight against this disease will demand of her.  

My friends’ traumas, in their relentless severity, might be rare, but they’re not unique in this world.  What their faith adds to their fortitude is the understanding of why such pains are part and parcel of life in this world, and of what would be required to cure the disease which caused these perennial pains.  And this means that they understand, further along the Pauline path to empathy with Jesus, the stunning depth of our Savior’s humiliation and sacrifice.  They understand with special depth that the eternal God willingly condescended to become one of us, to experientially understand us and our condition in a fallen world, and to willingly give his sinless life in the place of we who not only suffer in this world, but who are daily, willingly complicit in the ultimate and original cause of every bitter tear and bad news X-ray.  Their suffering has drawn them closer to Christ, which in turn gives them greater understanding of the cause, content, and cure of what ails the world, and will do so until Christ returns.  This gives them patience, perseverance, sympathy and empathy with fellow sufferers of severe traumas.  This gives them Christ-likeness.  And that’s what they want more than anything for themselves, their children, and the world.  

The Lord designed a particular portion of his word to bring us as close to empathy with Christ as any mere human being can come.  While this could (and might yet be!) the subject for a whole other entry, we can’t rightly think of Christlikeness without mentioning the Scriptures which allow us to sing his life experience – in the first person.  

Jesus sang, fulfilled and lived these God-breathed songs, which are by design simultaneously God’s words to us and our words to him.  The combination of divine and human open-heartedness made these musical compositions pitch perfect for Jesus.  And especially as we sing his life in the first person (most notably and vividly, perhaps, in Psalm 22) we gain a unique, inimitable window into what was on the heart of our Redeemer as he saved the world.  These songs take us much further down the path of empathy with Jesus than we should ever dare attempt to go ourselves, on our own terms and by our own devices.  The Psalms are God’s invitation to know Jesus in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, and as we believe and sing these compositions, the Holy Spirit composes us, making more fully within us a heart like Christ’s, one beating with love for the salvation of the world and with deep sympathy and empathy for the world’s inhabitants, willing to do, and endure, whatever is necessary to bring them home to God our heavenly Father.

May we who know the Lord Jesus mature in our faith such that we are willing to draw close to the heart of the one who’s come so close to us.  May we take advantage of the means God has given us toward that end.  May we have open eyes and hearts to every image-bearer bearing the pains of life in a fallen world, and understand and experience with greater empathy the healing, life-saving work uniquely accomplished in this world by the Word incarnate, the only begotten son of God.      

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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