Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and the Bible

The Bible has been a great help to me in times of trouble. It has been a consolation and a joy, but perhaps not in the way people commonly hear that, so let me say something about help and about what the Bible means to me.

I frequently confuse the words sympathy and empathy. One day, working the word mines – that is to say writing – I came across this animation that explained it beautifully. The short improved both my language and my ability to care for others. Empathy means entering into the suffering of another, metaphorically climbing into the hole with them and saying, I’m here with you. Sympathy, on the other hand, usually requires you to maintain “perspective” and separation so that you can help them out of the hole. It is, in the worst sense, pity or charity, in place of real compassion. It means trying to solve a problem for someone instead of solving it with them. In bureaucracy this may be the best course of action; in psychology, it almost never is. You cannot improve people’s mental state for them, but you can be there with them and help them climb out. [I think this applies to the state of their emotions, their soul, and will as well, but that is a longer argument.]

The Bible speaks of God’s empathy for me, and allows me to empathize with many others who have suffered what I suffer. In the darkest of times, I can turn to those who have gone before and take comfort from knowing that they have been there. I can even look to how they responded without feeling a need to respond in the same way. They travel the journey with me.

I love God. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, so sometimes I need to empathize with those who find their relationship with God troubling. I can look to Job. Job worried that life was not worth living. He thought God had been unjust and he spoke up about it. He ranted at God and about God, because sometimes it feels like God is a bit of a bastard. [This by the way, is one of the few insults Christians can get away with with impunity. Not a single member of Trinity has parents who were married. The sentiment is problematic, but that is exactly my point.] If I find myself in the very pit of despair and have trouble believing in God, Job is with me.

More often, God has been quite good to me, but seems to be holding out in one way or another. And then I can turn to Sarah. Sarah laughed when God promised her a son. She thought she was too old. The story does more than tell me Sarah was wrong – it tells me she was there. She felt as I do. I can empathize with her and she with me.

When I have failed, Peter stands with me. When I am lonely, John. When I am overwhelmed by others, Isaiah; by myself, Solomon. When God seems to be asking the impossible, Abraham, Moses, and Mary appear. When I doubt, Thomas. When I am doubted, Mary Magdalene. The Bible is so chock full of people suffering, it surprises me we read it at all. Remarkably often, things do not end perfectly in these stories. They do not end well by Earthly standards. Job gets a replacement family. Sarah ends up feuding with Hagar. Jesus and Peter are crucified. Mary loses her son and Moses never makes it to the promised land. The Bible has remarkably few concrete instructions for how to get to the promised land, but it is filled with people on their way. It has companions, with whom we can be in the midst of life.

Many modern Christians, but particularly Evangelicals and Pentecostals, want to turn the Bible into an instruction manual. They present it as a perfect record of God’s salvation or and eternal expression of God’s perfect servants. I respect these Christians in many ways, but cannot follow them in this. First, the Bible is a lousy instruction manual. It’s not concise, consistent, sequential, or by any means fool-proof. Most of these people turn out to be exceptionally bad role models. Even in the New Testament, look to Mark or Acts and you will find the disciples behaving in some rather dicey ways. Second, and more important, if they were perfect, it would rob me of true companionship. It would take away the empathy I have for them and, I believe, they for me. It would take away the God who is with me in the darkness and turn him into a repairman, who entered simply to change the light bulb. Part of the problem to be fixed is inside me, and I can be invited into that change, but I cannot be fixed.

I do not wish to deny the power of God. Indeed, I am a great defender of omnipotence and providence. But the Bible is not God. Nor is it a reference book on perfection. To turn the Bible into such a thing makes it an instrument of sympathy and not of empathy, an act of condescension and not of grace. At best it is gnosticism – to value propositions about faith over faith itself – and at worst idolatry – to confuse the creator with the created. Even if all the theological arguments fail, the pastoral issue remains.The Bible is most efficacious when it is narrative and companion, rather than didactic overlord.

I need companions more than I need idols. So, these are my people, and one of the greatest gifts of Christianity, not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.


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