African Swahili for ‘empathy’ is ‘poli’, literally “I feel your toothache!” If ‘sympathy’ is to say, “That must hurt”, ‘empathy’ is trying to feel yourself into someone’s situation, shoes, gums, bones and soul.
Observers of Western society say that empathy has much reduced in recent years and is in short supply, “No one understands!” a common cry. Fullarton Church has joined 23 other congregations across Scotland in a ‘Growing Young’ process of attempting to listen to and include people in their teens and twenties. We want to include and involve people of all ages but recognise that all too easily younger people can be patronised and ignored.
Aged 13 Steve asked his church minister if God knew beforehand which finger Steve was about to raise. “Yes, of course he did.” Came the quick answer. This led to questions about whether or not God foreknew about the starving infants in Africa. Again, the pastor was a bit too quick to answer and suggested that these things were beyond Steve’s understanding. Alas, Steve Jobs, the late great entrepreneur, media guru and founder of Apple Inc, thus turned his back on church and possibly on God too(?).
Perhaps being less defensive and more open and intrigued in his response the minister could have reached the root of Jobs’ tooth ache. Could things have been different if the pastor had attempted to empathise with this inquisitive young Jobs and help him process personal pain from being bullied at school, anxious over his step-parents precarious finances and sense of rejection due to his birth parents putting him up for adoption?
It’s an interesting exercise to try and remember what it was like to be a teenager: the awkwardness of your body changing, unnerving ignorance, the unsettling evolution of identity, yearning for intimacy and a belonging to a people who ‘get you’ and a purpose worth investing your life in. There are ‘growing pains’ associated with all life-periods of transition. This period of pandemic is like a ‘blizzard’ from which can come a ‘winter’ full of ‘threshold moments of opportunity’. But to grow such faith, hope and love will require oodles of empathy and support to get through the darkness and blizzard conditions.
Psalm 23 is a great prayer for now, recognising Jesus as our Good Shepherd guiding, guarding and gracing us with his empathetic, compassionate loving presence. Verse 1 “The Lord is my shepherd, I have it all!”encapsulates the prayer’s essence. Hear The Street Bible’s take on verse 4 – “I crawl through the alley of the shadow of cancer (covid, crisis, etc); I know, you know the answer, and the battle won’t rattle me. You’re around and I’ve found there’s something about your empathy, your symphony of sympathy, that comforts me.”
God is the great ‘Empathiser’, “For (in Jesus) we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise 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) The shortest Bible verse “Jesus Wept” illustrates God’s empathy well. God doesn’t offer easy trite patronising answers to our angst and anxiety, rather honest, open and compassionate empathy. Will you join God in noticing those he wants to get alongside through you? May God’s symphony of sympathy and energy of empathy overflow us in these tumultuous days!