Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Empathy or Compassion

This post is also the cover article from this week's newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and see what's happening in our parish, click here.

When your car runs out of gas and you are stranded on the side of the highway, whom would you rather meet—a motorist with an extra gallon of gas or another driver with an empty tank whose car sputters to a stop next to yours?

Over the last seventy-five years, a lot has changed, but few things have undergone as complete a reversal as the language we use to describe God. Instead of worshipping the “bulwark never failing,” which Martin Luther described in the 1529 hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we hold hands with a God who “weeps with us who weep and mourn,” as identified by Thomas Troeger in his 1996 hymn that bears that line as its title. Admittedly, all language used to describe God is bound by the limits of human approximation, and no poem or hymn or verse could ever comprehend that which is, by definition, infinite and incomprehensible. Still, though, the words we use to image the divine have enough power to change our understanding of who God is, which suggests the need for linguistic intentionality.

How would you attempt to describe the God of your life and faith? Do you search for a God who feels your pain and weeps with you, or do you seek a God who is impervious to the storms of life and reigns above the chaos below? Throughout the millennia, God’s people have used contrasting and sometimes contradictory words to articulate their hope for salvation. For example, intimacy with God is portrayed in Isaiah 41:13—“For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’” Yet God’s detached sovereignty is described just a few chapters later in Isaiah 45:1—“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Which is correct? Does God stoop down to comfort us in our moment of need, or does he look down from on high as one who rules even over the challenge we face? Well, it depends. Which one gives you hope?

Occasionally, we find ourselves standing on life’s most severe precipice, staring out into a never-ending darkness. Sometimes we reach that place as individuals who suffer indescribable pain. Other times we reach that place as an entire community that is devastated by a shared loss. Whether speaking to parent who has lost a child or a population that has been shaken by an earthquake, what words are the right ones to say? What are God’s words spoken into the pain of that moment? Surely no one can claim to have the answers, nor can anyone offer a prescription that will eliminate the loss, yet our faith unwaveringly declares that God is with us in that tragedy. As children of God, our suffering is not empty. There is always hope. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are an everlasting testimony to God’s never-failing love and his persistent presence even in moments of unspeakable disaster.

Personally, I cling to a God who is present in but not affected by the chaos of my life. I need an unmovable, unshakable rock upon which to build my faith and my hope. To me, a God who experiences the suffering I endure is unable to promise me any real salvation—for how can one who is himself subjected to the pains of life guarantee everlasting freedom from that pain? That is why I choose not to describe God as “compassionate” because etymologically the word compassion implies that one suffers with another. Instead, I prefer to describe God as “empathetic.” The word “empathy” is a relatively recent linguistic innovation that implies the ability to feel a circumstance from the perspective of another but does not necessitate a shared suffering. The Incarnation, therefore, is at its core an expression of empathy. It is the means by which God unites his nature to our nature in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered because we suffer, and, through the union of those two natures, God, who does not suffer, promises an end to all suffering.

Sometimes, though, we need more than a shoulder on which to cry. Sometimes we need someone to share our tears so that our tears will not fall alone. For some the greatest comfort and hope is expressed through a belief that God suffers alongside us. In that way, the cross of Christ is described as the perfect example of God’s suffering. That might not make sense to me, but I willingly admit that theology—the language we use to describe God—does not always make sense. Either way—regardless of the words you use to say it—embrace a understanding of God who is with you in your moments of pain and who has the power to transform them into moments of joy. You are not alone. God is with you and always will be.

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