God’s Empathy

All throughout scripture we find that one of God’s characteristics is empathy. God is eager to show compassion and care to those who are in need. Consider just a few of the following examples:

  • Exodus 3 is the story of God calling Moses. Perhaps the most miraculous thing about this passage–even more wonderful than a talking burning bush!–is that God heard the cry of an enslaved, oppressed people. Likewise, God sought to deliver the Israelites to freedom.
  • John 11:1-44 is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even before this resurrection miracle, Jesus took time to grieve.
  • Luke 19:37-42 speaks of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, clearly an indication that his heart broke for the people there.
  • Paul describes God as the “God of all comfort” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. God comforts people in their troubles. Part of God’s salvation also includes having this perfect friend in Christ, who knows our every weakness and concern.
  • And of course, Paul guides the New Testament church to show empathy because God shows this character quality (Romans 12:15, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23Ephesians 4:29-32)

During my college years at Baylor, I studied philosophy for my bachelor’s degree. One author I read for a few classes was a guy named Nicholas Wolterstorff. He was fairly popular in the world of Christian analytical philosophy and had written extensively on theology and ethics. He taught for many years at Yale University and Calvin College.

Wolterstorff’s thought was especially impactful on my own academic journey because of his personal background, too. I had the chance to hear him speak a few times as a guest lecturer, and I was struck by how kind, compassionate, and empathetic he was. You could definitely tell his life had been touched by God in how he spoke about justice, loving vulnerable neighbors, and caring for those in need.

Many years ago one of his sons died in a mountain climbing accident while vacationing in Europe. This tragic loss undoubtedly shaped his views on God, suffering, and the human condition. Here are a couple quotes from his own journey of discovering God’s life-giving empathy and compassion…

God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. So suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For love is the meaning. And love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.

We often have an idealized view of the word love. We assume it means nothing but happiness and bliss. Yes, these things ought to be a part of a loving relationship, but love often develops during moments of pain and challenge. Even though we do not enjoy it, suffering can actually build up our loving character with someone. The same was the case for God in the life of Jesus. Going to the cross was definitely not easy, yet God knew that it would be worth it in the end.

One of my favorite books Dr. Wolterstorff wrote was called Lament for a Son, which consisted of journal entries as he processed grief after his son’s death. Here’s one entry that has really shaped my sense of pastoral ministry:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

As I noted in my preaching yesterday, Christ empathizes with you. He walked a lonely road during his final hours and ultimately lost his life for our sake. Jesus knows pain, suffering, anxiety, and worry.

Even though we may suffer, there is still life-changing hope. Through our tears, pain, and suffering, we begin to see that God himself suffered too on the cross. So God knows exactly what you might be going through right now, and will be there every step of the way.

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