The same day my son earned a big academic achievement his senior year of high school, he had a wreck that was his fault. All in the accident were fine, but Jacob was understandably upset.
After the police and insurance information was exchanged and there was nothing else to do but handle the emotions of this accident, I spoke to my son.
“Remember how this feels.”
“Remember when your cousin had a wreck? Until this moment, could you really feel empathy for his wreck?”
Jacob shook his head and took a deep breath.
It wasn’t the time for preaching but for empathy. I told Jacob about the two wrecks I had that were my fault. I told him it’s just steel and plastic, and we thank God no one is hurt.
After school that day I checked in with Jacob’s emotions.
“How are you feeling, Jake?” He shrugged as high school boys often do.
“Could this be a way God allows humility on a day you could get the big head with your academic achievements?”
“You’ve been talking to Mom. That’s what she said.”
“We do talk, yes, and occasionally agree. Son, empathy is the difference between a self-serving person and one who serves others.”
He looked at me as he often does and his eyes asked for more explanation. Well, I think that’s what it was.
“If you don’t have empathy, you can’t imagine the pain of others, then you cannot rightly and effectively serve and lead others.”
OK, I think my son had enough learning from a fender bender! Empathy is huge for church leaders. But, how do we develop empathy?
How do we develop empathy?
You can’t choose all the events of your life. Many of the events you do not choose such as illness, accidents, and emotional pain are the very events that have great potential for developing empathy in you. You may not choose these events, but you can choose to develop empathy out of these events.
How do we deal with compassion fatigue or empathy drain?
The events surrounding the 2016 election, videoed police shootings, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements have led us to many roadblocks in relationships. People in churches, businesses, neighbors, Facebook friends have hardened their positions and desire to hear only from people who think like they do. The more we merely listen and experience the lives of those who are like us, think like us, the less we will have empathy for others unlike us.
The gospel is bound up in empathy. God empathized with us in Christ, the incarnate One, Immanuel, God with us. “He who had no sin became sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
How do we get empathy back?
I’ve experienced compassion fatigue and empathy drain. Have you? When this happens, I find ways to recharge empathy. There are two ways you can recharge empathy. Listen. Do something.
In the church in which I preach, The Journey (www.thejourneychurch.faith), I went and listened at racial reconciliation rallies and also participated in an all-day “Policy Boot Camp” where I learned about state laws, budgets, expenditures, prisons, education, and health. The principle I followed is the empathy principle. I did two basic things we can all do: Listen. Do something. These two activities breed not dyspathy–the lack of empathy–but empathy.
Empathy is the coin of the realm of the Kingdom of God.
A smart person with no empathy breeds elitism.
A rich person with no empathy costs his family and neighbors more than his net worth. A rich person with empathy freely gives because she knows she is not a self made person.
A powerful person lacking empathy threatens peace. But a smart person with empathy promotes justice. A powerful person who speaks out for the power-stripped is following the example of the empathizing Christ.
Greg Taylor is preaching minister for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Greg is author of several books including “Lay Down Your Guns: One Doctor’s Battle for Hope and Healing in Honduras” and “High Places: A Novel,” and has co-authored several books.