If we could stand in someone else’s shoes and hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel…
Over the weekend, in the sleepy little beach community of San Clemente, California, where my daughter lives, a man walked into one of the quaint little boutique stores that line two blocks of shops and restaurants on the main drag down to the beach, and amidst shoppers on a pleasant fall day, shot and killed the shop owner and himself. The two of them were in the midst of an ugly divorce that couldn’t possibly get any uglier. Ironically, the name of the store was Bliss.
Needless to say, Bliss is temporarily closed. Out in front there is a growing mound of flowers and candles that burn all night, along with a steady stream of people, many of them locals who knew the couple, who stand and stare in disbelief. You can only imagine the sense of helplessness and loss they are feeling.
On numerous occasions, when Jesus saw the crowds that were following Him, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus was constantly empathizing with people. In fact, I believe that’s why the prophesy about the Messiah was that He would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That would be the sorrow and grief of the people around Him. He so identified with them that He felt what they felt.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is entering into their sorrow.
Jesus feels the sorrow and helplessness of the people on the corner of Victoria and Del Mar, staring helplessly into the windows of Bliss and wondering why. And He wants us to feel it too. It is through empathy that the Gospel of Welcome has its greatest chance of touching a person’s life. This is not just telling someone they need the Lord; it is standing in the shoes of that person and feeling their need for Christ and almost willing Him into their life. If you do this, you’re going to touch them with the love of Jesus; it’s inevitable.
Do you approach people differently when you have empathy for them? Yes. You approach them without judgment, without blame, without argument, without “I told you so,” and without fear or separation because you understand them, you can identify with them, and you can love them with the love of Jesus. If you feel what they feel, you are right next to them, and you will know what to do. If you’re feeling the same thing someone else is feeling, you will know what is appropriate to do for them and what is not. Sometimes the pain can be so deep that there is nothing you can do but sit with them in silence. If so, the Lord is in the silence. That’s the Gospel of Welcome.
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