Us is the inclusive part of human nature. Us is the God-given desire for relationships, community and fellowship. Us is the instinct that inspired our ancestors to live together, first as families, and then as clans, villages, cities, nations, kingdoms and empires. Us lies at the heart of declarations such as
• “I love you.”
• “I pledge allegiance …”
• “Welcome to the club.”
• “You’re my best friend.”
• “I’ve got your back.”
Us is the embodiment of cooperation, camaraderie and teamwork. The book of Revelation hints that it’s also a preview of heaven. The worship scene in Revelation 7:9-12 is the very pinnacle of “us-ness.”
Them is the hazardous byproduct of us. The origins of them are murky. At some point early in human history, someone determined that not everyone deserved us-ness. Perhaps as a result of the Fall, people came to the realization that the best way to strengthen us was to create a them.
Them is the exclusive part of human nature. Them is the sin-stained desire to establish a more prestigious and selective us by denying us-ness to certain people. Them feeds and bruises egos in equal measure. Few experiences in life are as thrilling as being included in a select group. Likewise, few experiences in life are as devastating as being deemed unworthy to join such a group.
Them gives us a reason to indulge in the worst aspects of our sinful nature. Them is the dark heart of bullying, Them is the justification for war. Them creates refugee crises. Them caused the Holocaust.
The dynamic of us and them is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it drives national elections and government policies. That’s why Galatians 3:28 stands as one of the most subversive passages in all of Scripture. In it, the apostle Paul declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In Christ Jesus, there is no us and them.
How is such a radical shift in perspective possible?
Empathy, in its purest form, is us trying to see through the eyes of them. That’s not to say that empathy is the same as agreement. It’s not. Some us-and-them schisms are the results of two differing, yet very deeply held, beliefs. Empathy is the bridge that spans the schism and allows us and them to explore one another’s territory. Ideally, the result is a common ground where us and them can coexist.
Empathy opens the door to meaningful interaction between us and them. Empathy seeks to understand. Empathy lowers defenses. Empathy doesn’t presume to announce, “I know how you think and feel”; empathy humbly says, “I want to understand how you think and feel.”
Empathy is in short supply in our culture. That’s why the people who practice it are among our most valuable resources.
Second Kings 6 tells the story of King Aram’s attempts to silence the prophet Elisha. The king was understandably peeved by Elisha’s ability to predict where and when Aram’s army would attack Israel’s forces, thus eliminating Aram’s element of surprise and giving Israel a decided strategic advantage.
One night the king of Aram sent his army to surround the city of Dothan, where Elisha lived. The next morning, when Elisha and his servant walked out of their house, they saw the assembled forces of Aram. The servant panicked because he could see nothing else.
Elisha stayed calm and asked the Lord to open his servant’s eyes. The servant was equally stunned and reassured by what he saw. An army of angels, far more vast and imposing than Aram’s forces, stood ready for battle. Though he hadn’t realized it before, the servant had nothing to fear.
Elisha’s servant was unable to recognize God’s protection, even though it surrounded him. In a similar vein, there are people in your orbit who are unable to recognize God’s love, even though it surrounds them.
The first step is to understand what blinds them. Many hurting people blame God for the pain and disappointment in their lives. They hear Christians talk about God’s power and wonder why He let one of their loved ones die. Worse yet, they see and hear what God has done in other people’s lives and wonder why He hasn’t done the same for them.
Their circumstances blind them to God’s love. They can’t see the handiwork described in Romans 8:28, how “all things work together for good to those who love God.” They need someone to help them see.
But not just anyone.
Because, in many cases, what blinds people to God’s love are the actions and attitudes of those who claim to follow the Lord. Some people might have felt unwelcome at church. Others may have experienced bullying at the hands of Christian peers. Still others may have learned all too well of the feet of clay of respected spiritual leaders.
Few things blur a person’s spiritual outlook like hypocrisy. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. Once people have seen hypocrisy in action, they become suspicious of—and sometimes antagonistic toward—anyone who speaks to them about God’s love.
If people sense that…
they will respond … eventually.
Building that kind of trust requires time, consistency and transparency. God’s love shines through the one who makes time for her neighbor, It shines through the one who stands next to a grieving husband or father, not just for the duration of the funeral, but for months and years afterward.
People who are unfamiliar with God’s love may not recognize it at first. But they will recognize someone who genuinely cares for them and wants to help. That’s the work of Christ’s body in the world.
Empathy is woven deep into the fabric of Scripture. Virtually every instruction God offers regarding the way we’re to treat others begins with empathy. As we live in community, and seek to reflect Christ, it’s important that we continue to read the Bible and listen to the biblical definition of empathy. Here are four examples.
The “one mind” that the apostle Peter refers to in this passage is the mind of Christ, which is what all Christians aspire to have. But Peter’s call for unity among believers cannot be answered without empathy and understanding. In order to be one with other people, we must develop a deep understanding of
According to Peter, oneness is created by treating one another with compassion, love, tenderness and courtesy—four qualities that lie at the heart of empathy.
Those who rejoice usually do so because good things are happening in their lives. If we’re not careful, other people’s rejoicing can trigger feelings of competition or jealousy. The urge to “top” others with stories of our own successes—or to wallow in envy because we don’t have as much to rejoice over—can be hard to resist.
Those who weep usually do so because they’ve suffered a devastating loss or misfortune. That can create some messy emotional landscapes. It’s nearly impossible to tread into the lives of hurting people without getting our hands dirty. The urge to stay out of the mess—to send our thoughts and prayers from a safe distance—can be hard to resist.
But that’s not what empathy is, and that’s not what God calls us to.
Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So technically speaking, He knew there was no reason for Lazarus’ loved ones to mourn. He knew that in a matter of minutes, their tears would turn to joy. So Jesus would have been excused for rolling His eyes and shaking His head over the people’s reaction to something so … temporary.
Yet Jesus didn’t give Lazarus’ mourners the side-eye. He didn’t try to talk them out of their grief. He didn’t chide them for their lack of faith. Jesus saw people who were hurting, and it made Him hurt, too. He empathized so strongly with those who were mourning that He wept.
The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as a defense attorney of sorts. He represents His followers before God the Judge. While Satan, the prosecuting attorney, levels charges against us, demanding that God punish our sins, Jesus rebuts his accusations by reminding God that His (Jesus’) blood covers our offenses.
What makes Jesus an especially effective Counselor and Defender is His experience on earth. He expertly represents us before God because He empathizes with us. He knows what it is to be tempted and weak. He understands us because He experienced what we experience and endured what we endure.
Many great Christian thinkers, past and present, have grappled with what it means to love your neighbor and live out your faith in community. Now you are explore what many of them say with the in-text commentary of the Ancient-Modern Bible. One Faith. Handed Down. For All The Saints.