Empathy and the New Testament
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Empathy and the New Testament

L. Ann Jervis


            If we are to understand empathy in light of the New Testament, we would do well to begin from a perspective shared by many of its earliest readers in the Greco-Roman world.  In essence, the Greeks considered that empathy between humans and the gods was not possible. While, on occasion, the gods could come to the aid of human beings, the gods could not empathize with humans.  The experience of being a god was so different from the experience of being a human that there was no possibility for either of them truly to understand the other.  There was no possibility of empathy. 

            This distinction between the life of the gods and the life of humans was deeply rooted in the Mediterranean culture.  In the Iliad, Homer writes that no human being will escape troubles in his or her life for “such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows” (24.525-26).  Similarly, Aristotle criticizes Plato’s suggestion that humans should look at the Ideal Good or at God, declaring that the gods cannot be an example for human conduct for the simple reason that the gods are gods, with a mode of existence far removed from human life. 

            It is against the backdrop of such a widely-held views that we may approach the question of “Empathy and the New Testament.”  When I speak of empathy in the New Testament, I am referring to the capacity and activity of understanding the experience of the other.  When I speak of “capacity,” I am speaking of the ability to comprehend or enter into the experience of another.  When I speak of “activity” I am, of course, referring to actually entering into another’s story. 

            Obviously enough, empathy involves listening.  But it is a certain kind of listening.  It is a kind of listening which is not defensive, not critical, not suspicious.  It is the opposite of the kind of listening that a jury does when listening to witnesses.  The kind of listening which is necessary for empathy is sympathetic listening – believing the story of the other. 

            Empathy connotes not just listening to another’s story but also participating in the other’s story, so that the listener not only hears and believes the facts of another’s experience, but actually feels the experience at some level.  To have empathy with another is not simply to believe what that person says but to feel along with that person, to participate in that person’s experience.

            Thus to take an empathetic stance towards another means that I am able to transcend myself and my own experience in order to enter into the experience of another.  Those who have received such empathy from another will know that there is nothing more healing or more validating than this.

            Until I was asked to address this topic, I had never before thought about empathy in the context of the New Testament.  As a result of this assignment, I have found the topic to be an extremely fruitful road into fundamental New Testament theology.  The most obvious New Testament example of empathy is, of course, Jesus himself. The early Christian writer Irenaeus does not use the word empathy when he talks about Jesus, but his famous statement conveys what we might call a Christology of empathy: “he became as we are in order that we might become as he is.”

            With Jesus as our focal point, I want to think about the New Testament’s presentation of God’s empathy, of Jesus’ empathy, and of human empathy.   We will begin with the empathy of God.

            Unlike the Greek understanding of the gods as beings who could not understand human experience, the New Testament regards God as entirely capable of such understanding.  In fact, the New Testament claims that God entered human experience.  The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the New Testament’s understanding of God’s empathy is, of course, the incarnation.  The gospel of Matthew, for example, presents the birth of Jesus as the heralding of God’s presence with humankind.  The manner in which this took place was through God sending a special human being, whom the New Testament texts refer to variously as son of David, son of Abraham, son of God, Christ, son of man, Emmanuel.  This man Jesus is, the New Testament affirms, one who necessarily empathizes with human experience because he himself is human.  But he is also the presence of God in human experience.  Jesus is, in effect, God empathizing with human experience. 

            For the New Testament author of Hebrews, Jesus is the high priest who is better than all other high priests.  Jesus is a unique high priest, for he is a person who both sympathizes with our weaknesses, for he has experienced them, and yet he has not sinned and is therefore like God: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14 -15).   Through Jesus, then, God is revealed as one with both the capacity to enter into human experience and the power and commitment actively to do so.  In sending Jesus, God turns out to be empathetic beyond anything we could ask or imagine.  Indeed, God chose to send the Son so that God would have firsthand experience of mortal life, and in doing so to become more accessible to humanity.  The author of Hebrews claims that God’s Son’s experience of human life is precisely what allows humans to draw closer to the divine.  The verse immediately following the ones quoted above reads: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.”  That is to say, the consequence of God’s entering the realm of humanity through the person of God’s son Jesus is that God has become approachable in a new way.  Thus the New Testament understands God’s empathy to be concrete and complete.  God empathizes with human experience not just by knowing about it but by entering into it.

            This is a remarkable claim, since the New Testament writers also claim that God is the creator of  humankind.  Would it not be enough for God to know human experience on the basis of creation alone?  The New Testament authors think not.  God’s understanding of human experience was, in their view, not complete until God sent Jesus.  This seems a strange statement.  It sounds like I am saying that God’s ability to understand was limited until God did something.  But I, like any human who thinks about God, can speak only from the human point of view.  I really don’t know what God can and cannot do.  But what I can know is what I think about God and how God chooses to be revealed.  In stating that God could not fully understand, or empathize, with human experience until God sent Jesus, I am really saying that, from the Christian perspective, humans could not understand that God could identify with us until God sent Jesus.

            For the writers of the New Testament, then, God concretely and completely empathizes with human experience.  In the person of God’s son God enters human experience. 

            What is remarkable about God’s Son is that he empathizes not only with humanity but also with God in the world.  That is, it is not simply that Jesus is Son of God who empathizes with human experience.  He is that.  But he is also Son of God who empathizes with God’s experience of seeking to be heard by human beings.

            As mentioned earlier, the New Testament speaks of Jesus as Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham.  This means that Jesus is God’s presence in the realm of human experience in a manner that is connected to the history of God’s empathy, which is the history of God’s attempts to enter into the realm of human experience.  Through the prophets God had attempted to demonstrate to humanity that God understood the tensions and limitations of human life, but also the desire of the people of Israel to be righteous.  Throughout the history of Israel God had demonstrated an awareness of what it meant to be the people of God, and had shown respect for Israel’s commitment to be obedient.  The reminders of Israel’s election, the challenges of the prophets and the hopes for a re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom were all ways in which the OT writers represented God as empathic.  God knew Israel’s trials and hopes.   God knew and understood that Israel valued obedience to God, even while continually failing to be fully obedient.

            When the New Testament writers claim that Jesus is son of David, son of Abraham, they are affirming that Jesus is the one who operates in the context of God’s reaching out and responding to Israel’s commitment to being connected to God.  The empathy of   Jesus is connected to the empathy of Israel’s God.  Jesus’ capacity to understand human experience and his active role in doing so are part of the story of God’s expressing empathy to humankind.  While Christians believe that Jesus’ role is unique and final, that role is not regarded as unexpected or disconnected.  Rather, Jesus completes and fulfills the demonstration of God’s empathy for humankind.  By being God’s Messiah, the Christ, Jesus embodies God’s empathy.  Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, brings the kingdom of God.  Jesus teaches and demonstrates that the kingdom of God provides an environment where sin, disease and death – those great enemies of humanity – can be defeated.  In the kingdom of God sins are forgiven, sickness and deformity are healed, and there is resurrection and eternal life. 

            Jesus the Christ’s bringing in the kingdom of God on behalf of God is thus the perfect demonstration of God’s empathy.  By preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand, as Jesus does at the beginning of Mark, for example, and by confirming this through his forgiving of sins and healing and raising people from the dead, Jesus reveals God’s complete empathy for human existence.  God understands the problems of living a human life – living with shame and guilt, living with sickness, fearing death.  Furthermore, God’s empathy extends from the capacity to understand human experience, to actively engaging in human experience, to opening a way for the pain of human experience to be healed. 

            Perhaps this final stage – the stage of actively effecting change for the other, as God does in sending Jesus and by inaugurating God’s kingdom – goes beyond the activity of empathy to another sort of activity.  We might call it the activity of change, the activity of the activist.  But perhaps this is one of the important features of empathy.  Empathy is the beginning of change.  One of the distinctives of Jewish and Christian religion is that both have tended to be socially active.  Such activism is grounded in the empathy that is at the heart of these religions.  The source of energy for changing situations is in being able to hear and be affected by the story of another.

            Let us now focus more closely on some of the New Testament understandings of Jesus.  The New Testament claims that Jesus is the perfection of God’s empathy for the world not only through being God’s Messiah, the one who brings in the kingdom of God, but also through being God’s presence in the world – Emmanuel.  As mentioned earlier, the Gospel of Matthew makes explicit the early Christian belief that through Jesus, God was present in a unique way.  At the beginning of the gospel, Matthew writes that Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means God with us)” (1:23).  The very last words of the gospel of Matthew are Jesus’ words from the mountain: “Go...and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:19-20).  Jesus embodies God’s ongoing presence in human existence.  For our purposes we can say that Jesus is a manifestation of God actively empathizing with human existence.

            This is certainly how the great early Christian hymns understood Jesus.  Two of the earliest such hymns are found in Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:5-11, both proclaiming that Jesus  fully empathizes with God and with humanity alike.  Among other things, Col 1:15-21 says of Jesus: that “he is the image of the invisible God,” and that “in Jesus all the fulness of God was please to dwell.”  While the author does not actually call Jesus “God,” he presents Jesus as one who completely identifies with God the creator: he is completely filled with God.  Yet Jesus not only empathizes with God, but with humanity as well, for he is visible – the image of the invisible God.  He is a human being who lives a human life.  The Philippian hymn puts it this way:  “Christ Jesus was in the form of God but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humanity” (Phil 2:6-7).  Jesus completely understands God and completely understands human existence.  It is in this sense that Jesus is the ultimate empathizer.

            The New Testament texts make plain not just that Jesus is a unique being capable both of fully understanding God and of fully understanding human beings.   The same texts also insist that Jesus’ capacity to empathize and his willingness actively to empathize was costly.  There is a cost to empathy.  And the cost comes at the moment when the capacity for empathy crosses over into the activity of empathy.

            One of the most dramatic examples of Jesus’ actively empathizing is at the moment of his baptism.  The earliest Christian believers recognized that Jesus’ baptism by John signaled, in an unmistakable way, that Jesus was identifying with human experience.  The gospel writers present John the baptizer as offering a baptism of repentance.  John the Baptist calls the people of Israel to turn from their sins and turn towards the kingdom of God.   Thus when Jesus too is baptized by John, he participates in this national repentance: he identifies and empathizes with the needs and hopes of Israel.

            We can see that, in some respects, the early church felt uncomfortable with such active empathy.  While the earliest gospel (Mark) simply states that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, Matthew massages Mark’s account.  Matthew has John being hesitant to baptize Jesus: “then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (3:13-14).  Clearly, Matthew is uncomfortable with the Son of God, the Christ, so actively empathizing with  human experience.   Perhaps he would have been more comfortable if at this point Jesus had demonstrated a capacity for empathy, but had stopped short of acting on it. 

            It is, however, Jesus’ active empathy, his fully entering the experience of another – of humanity – that the New Testament writers cannot deny.   And all the New Testament authors make plain that such active empathy was costly.  In the gospels, Jesus’ baptism is followed by his temptation by Satan.  That is, right after Jesus actively identifies with humanity he experiences in a full blown way the reality of human experience.  The baptism initiates Jesus’ entry into the battle which is part of the human experience.  Jesus’ active empathy means that he faces the enemies of sin, disease and death.  Jesus’ active empathy proves personally costly.

            The New Testament presents Jesus as so fully identifying with the human experience that he positions himself directly in the face of the same enemies that all human beings face – squarely opposite sin, disease and death.  Just as humans wage war with the feelings of shame and guilt caused by sin, with the pain and limitations of disease and with the fear of death, so did Jesus.  The New Testament writers present him as so fully empathizing with the human experience of sin that, as Paul writes in 2 Cor 5 (21) “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin.”    Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus “has suffered and been tempted” (2:18).

            Jesus is also presented as constantly battling disease, not in himself, but in others. While his ability to heal is unique to him, his consistent willingness to be with lepers, with sick and dying people, and with those who were deformed, and his willingness to accept the consequences of healing them – namely the resentment and anger of the Jewish leaders – shows Jesus actively empathizing with the human experience of disease. 

            Indeed, Jesus’ identification with human life led him finally to the cross.  While Jesus is Son of God and Christ, this did not prevent him from experiencing the ultimate fear and pain of death.  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane makes plain that he knows what it is for a human being to wish to avoid the inevitability of death.  Above all in the crucifixion scenes that follow, we are aware of the agony of Jesus’ dying.  Such suffering is the ultimate expression of Jesus’ empathy, as the hymns from Colossians and Philippians express in a succinct and poetic form: “In him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20); “being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

            Finally, I want to turn to some facets of what the New Testament says about empathy for those who choose to follow Jesus.  While the New Testament does not use the word empathy, it does speak of believers empathizing with Jesus.  The most dramatic description of believers’ empathy is what Paul terms being “in Christ.”   Paul’s central way of expressing what it means to be a believer in Jesus Christ is to speak of believers actually living “in Christ.”  For Paul, this entails believers sharing in Christ’s faith, in Christ’s death and in Christ’s resurrection.  For our purposes we can say that Paul encourages believers to recognize themselves as empathizers.  Believers in Jesus are those who fully enter Jesus’ experience of being a human being.  This means, as I said, experiencing the faith of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and hoping to experience the resurrection of Jesus.

            We can address these categories in reverse order.  Paul writes that he and other believers hope to experience the resurrection of Jesus.  In Philippians, Paul speaks personally about his faith, saying that he hopes to be found in Christ, “that I may know him and the power of the resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (3:9-11).   Paul believes that his empathy with Christ will result in experiencing resurrection as Christ did.

            From this passage we see also that Paul regards believers’ empathy as extending also to an experience of, or participation in, Jesus’ death.   As I read Paul, he wants to become like Jesus in his death.  This is a central idea in Paul – that believers participate in Jesus’ death. This, in fact, is how he understands baptism – as baptism into Christ’s death.  In Romans 6 Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?”   For Paul this entails sharing Christ’s sufferings: as he tells the Corinthian believers, “just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (2 Cor 1:5).  Paul can even say, in Galatians 2:19, “I have been co-crucified with Christ.”  The gospel writers have another way of signalling the importance of such an empathetic response to Jesus' experience of being a human being.   In the gospels Jesus regularly urges his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross (e.g. Matt 16:24).  That is, to follow Jesus is to so empathize with his life that one experiences what he experienced.

            Beyond Paul’s hope that believers can share in Christ’s resurrection, and his conviction that the life of the Christian is a life lived through participating in the death of Christ, Paul also speaks of sharing in the experience of Christ’s being a faithful human being. To convey this concept, Paul uses the phrase “the faith of Christ” (often translated as “faith in Christ”).  I need not recite here the reasons why many translators of the Greek phrase “pistis Christou” choose to render it “faith of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ,” but I am among those who consider the phrase best understood as referring to Christ’s own faith, rather than that of his followers.

            The consequences of such a reading are dramatic.  For example, Gal 2:16 is usually translated “we who know that a person is not justified by works of law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of law.”  In  my view, however, the verse should read: “We know that a person is justified not by works of law but through Christ’s faith.  And we have come to have faith in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by Christ’s faith and not by doing works of law.”

            What makes such a translation most attractive is that it brings a verse like Gal 2:16 into line with the central message of Paul – that believers are “in Christ,” or as we have read that phrase in the context of the present study, believers are capable of and actively do empathize with Christ.  Paul is claiming that the faith of believers is the same faith as Jesus had.   Because believers are in Christ they live their human lives the way Jesus lived his – with faith.  Because believers are in Christ they are given the gift of Jesus’ own faith.

            So Paul considers that the goal for believers is to participate fully in Christ, in hoping for a resurrection like his, in dying with him, and in living with the kind of faith with which he lived.  Paul considers his own identification with Jesus Christ to be so complete that he can write: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).  I think he holds this up as a challenge to other followers of Jesus.   For Paul, the empathetic response of the believer, the active empathy of the believer, is the key to the Christian life.

            For believers, as for Jesus, this will be costly.  None of the New Testament texts (unlike many of our modern Christian communities) ignore or downplay the fact that empathizing with Jesus entails suffering.  Just as Jesus was, as the writer of Hebrews says, made perfect through suffering (2:10), so believers suffer in turn.  When the New Testament authors address the fact that believers in Jesus are being persecuted, they do not apologize for the suffering that believers endure.  They rather affirm that suffering is to be expected and encourage believers to understand themselves as participating in (and even to be completing; Col 1:24) the sufferings of Christ.

            Even though the New Testament does not employ  the actual word, empathy lies at the heart of the Christian faith.   The New Testament believes that God is an empathetic God; that God’s empathy extends beyond the capacity to understand human experience to actively entering into human experience.  The New Testament presents Jesus as the supreme example of empathy, as one who fully understands both the experience of God and the experience of humanity.  And Paul challenges followers of Jesus to empathize fully with Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ death, and to hope for his resurrection.

            The New Testament writers believe that God’s entering human experience through Jesus initiated something new and better for humanity.  Earlier I said that I thought that the social activism characteristic of  Judaism and Christianity is connected to the conviction of these religions that God is an empathetic God.  In both Judaism and Christianity, God is regarded as one who understands human experience and who enters into it: either through prophets, kings and sages, or through Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, both religions believe that when God enters the human story things change for the better.   God’s empathy with the human story results in changing the human story.  Inherent in our religions is the belief that empathy is central to religious faith and that empathy births new possibilities for those who are burdened, ill, oppressed, or dying.  Empathy is the beginning of a story in which the sufferer feels new power and new life.

            To sum up: if to empathize means to enter into and participate in the story of another, then the New Testament writers present God, Jesus, and Christians alike as empathizers.  While the New Testament writers do not downplay the cost of being empathetic, they do affirm the reward of being so, for by entering into the story of Jesus believers enter into God.  Empathy is at the heart of the Christian message and serves, in some profound way, as the key to understanding who God is, who Jesus is, and who believers in Jesus may become.  The result of empathy is that, for those who are empathized with, the story is somehow changed for the better.  We may say that for believers in Jesus, for those who know that God through Jesus has empathized with them and who in turn empathize with Jesus, everything has changed.  The life of the believer is now lived in a new reality, in the context of a new story, one in which the pain and loss of life is experienced within a new frame of reference.  The fact that God through Christ empathizes with us means that believers may regard their individual experiences of suffering as part of a larger story in which resurrection, eternal life, and never-ending joy are, so to speak, the end of the tale.   As Ireneaus said long ago, “Jesus became what we are, in order that we might become what he is.”