1 Peter 3:8-11
8And finally, being all of one mind, having fellow-feeling, loving as brethren, compassionate, courteous, 9not giving back evil for evil, or railing for railing, and on the contrary, blessing, having known that to this ye were called, that a blessing ye may inherit; 10for he who is willing to love life, and to see good days, let him guard his tongue from evil, and his lips -- not to speak guile; 11let him turn aside from evil, and do good, let him seek peace and pursue it;
Our country, as well as the world, has suffered many devastating tragedies over our history. Affecting our country alone, here are the top 10 major events that have inflicted a devastating toll on America lives. The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,390 Americans. 9/11 killed 2,974. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake killed 3,000. 8,000 lost their live in the September 8/9/1900 Galveston Hurricane. 36,914 servicemen were killed in the Korean War and 58,220 in Viet Nam. World War I claimed 116,516 American lives, and World War II 405,400. The Covid-19 Pandemic has claimed 596,961 lives. The 1981 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 675,000 and HIV has killed 700,000. And the deadliest event in US history is The Civil War, killing approximately 750,000 Americans.
Considering these tragedies, and the myriad others that have happened recently, I want to talk about empathy. One dictionary defines empathy as: identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. It has also been described as the ability to put oneself in the other person’s place – to walk a mile in their shoes.
Empathy requires that we understand the circumstances of another, and then experience the feelings the circumstances provoke; to feel their pain in our hearts. That is empathy.
Although the Bible does not contain the word ‘empathy’, in our Bible verse the phrase ‘fellow-feeling’ comes from the Greek word ‘Sumpathes’ that means “suffering or feeling the like with another”, about as close to the word empathy as we can come.
In Romans 12:9-15 Paul gives some outstanding advice:
9Let love be without hypocrisy, abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Whether it is a pandemic from a virus, or mass shootings, or natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, or heat, when we see tragedy, how do we react? Do we turn our eyes and minds away, ignore the suffering, or do we can cling to the good, devote ourselves to others through acts of service or prayer? Do we speak good uplifting words – the meaning of the word bless. Do we rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn? It is almost impossible for some of us to look upon the recent devastations by natural disaster, and not donate to a charitable organization, and that is a good thing.
Jesus was once asked by a lawyer, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? We must remember that Jesus was not a Christian, so his answer did not conform to any standard Christian dogma of the day. He answered by asking the lawyer what was written in the law, and the man replied: “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him that he had answered correctly. “Do this and you will live.”
How does out love express? Some people believe that among the other pandemics, there is another pandemic afflicting millions of Americans; it is called EDD - Empathy Deficit Disorder. Many people have become catastrophically unempathetic; they are so consumed with themselves, their agenda, and their problems within a culture that emphasizes status over ethics, faction over unity, and acquisition over cooperation. It seems that some people have unlearned the empathy habits of childhood and replaced them with an ego-centric disconnect from everyone else.
Empathy Deficit Disorder prevents a person from stepping outside themselves and connecting with other people’s situations. This results in apathy, resignation, communication breakdowns in intimate relationships, and promotes an adversarial attitude toward anyone different from us physically, religiously, politically, socially…well, you get the idea.
Now I can understand; it is difficult for me, and sometimes emotionally painful to allow myself to feel the anguish that someone else might be feeling in a particular situation. It is hard for us to mourn when others mourn; weep when they weep. Isn’t there enough challenge in our own lives without having to experience the pain in someone else’s?
We need to remember, however, that empathy doesn’t require us to abandon our own perspective on an issue. We are simply visiting their emotions, conflicts, or aspirations.
And have we ever experienced the magic of a reaction from a truly empathetic person? We are all prone to whine about something at some point. But if we whine to a person steeped in empathy, they say things like: “Wow, that must be tough on you.” or “When that happened, how did it make you feel?”
Their focus is on us – entirely. There is a “fellow-feeling” that they connect with. It’s not the “Oh, I know, but listen to this,” and they are off on their own ‘let me tell you what happened to me’ story.
If we do not understand where another person is coming from, we may be tempted to close our mind and heart. Practicing empathy helps us expand our perspective. When we place our self in the shoes of another and strive to comprehend the world as they do, we show compassion through our desire to understand.
Deeper than mere listening, empathy helps us see the world through another’s eyes. As we take on a new viewpoint, we can more easily appreciate how another person views the world and the viewpoints of others. We start to understand why they think, respond, and behave the way they do.
In Matthew 9:36, we read: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Empathy keeps us centered in the awareness that all people are divine and equal as children of God.
We are told to love the Lord our God and love our neighbor as our self. Perhaps we need to reevaluate what we love and value. Are riches, gold, and diamonds of more value to us than God? Are real estate holdings and top positions in companies where our love lies? Is it the feelings we derive from having others look upon us as successful that motivate us? Are we stirred by being right, or being better than others? Are we driven by our human nature or spiritual nature, by ego or by God?
If we start to suspect that we are developing EDD, it is time to reestablish those empathetic skills we learned as a child. Start by thinking of others and their situations.
In Acts 6 we hear a story about a congregation that had a problem. Some of the Greek speaking congregants complained that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food line by the Hebrew speaking members. The disciples counseled that they should choose seven members of the congregation to address the poor while the others attended to their prayers and speaking with God. Part of empathy is acknowledging the struggles of others, and then acting on it with understanding.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 we read: God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
According to Psychotherapist Douglas LaBier, our brains are hard-wired to feel the pain of others through what are called mirrored neurons. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery shows that the brain regions involving physical and emotional sensations become active when observing, or just becoming aware of someone else’s pain or suffering.
We can start increasing our empathy by lessening our self-absorption; by abandoning the ego as the source for our thinking, and by turning our thoughts to God and spiritual principles instead. Magnetic resonance imagery also shows that when we engage in altruistic behavior the pleasure centers of our brain light up, which reinforces our unselfish and charitable thoughts and actions, creating a positive loop supporting our thinking and behavior.
Feeling understood is a human need. At the human level, our profound need to be heard and understood longs for another person to empathize with us even if our basic needs are not being met and we are hungry and poverty-stricken. Someone’s empathy allows us to connect, feel safer and more secure while easing the pain of life's hardships and struggles.
Empathy develops within us when we keep our hearts open; we begin to see ourselves, and all people, as Children of God. Every small effort that we make to open our heart generates powerful healing energy, no matter what is happening around us. When Spirit awakens, we realize that there is a oneness pervading the immense diversity of Creation; we are connected.
We are taught in Ephesians 4:25 - So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
There is only one Source, and when we empathize genuinely, life-sustaining energy flows from that Source. Its warmth melts layers of negative emotion covering a person's inner truth and elevates positive emotion, in them and ourselves. Once felt, the flowers of the heart bloom and people feel cared for, understood, and ready to take actions that lead to God’s good and feeling better. Christ whispers to us that there is nothing we need from the world, nothing we have ever needed, except the Love of God.
So, it is my prayer that we be willing to love life, and to see good days. I pray that we guard our tongue from evil, and not speak guile. I pray that we turn aside from evil and do good. Let us seek peace and pursue it; develop empathy, gain understanding, share our appreciation, and revel in our connection as Children of God.