Learning What it Means to Have Christ-like Empathy
Written By: Jeremiah Storkson
“Jesus wept.” John 11:35 (NIV)
This is the shortest verse in the entire Bible, but it is honestly one of the most profound. Why would Jesus weep? If you think about it, this is a valid question. He knew what He was on earth to do, and He knew He was bringing hope, so why cry? I truly believe that Jesus was the greatest possible example of what it looks like to live with empathy.
Empathy, according to Google dictionary, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” While sympathy feels for someone else, empathy feels with that person. I believe the best Scriptural example of the empathy of Jesus is in John 11.
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judea.’” John 11:1-7 (NIV)
What is interesting about this is that Jesus begins by affirming the fact that Lazarus would be restored and that there would be healing. He begins by assuring that He is in control of the situation. When He arrives and sees Mary and Martha, He continues by assuring them of the truth.
“On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’” John 11:17-27 (NIV)
We see again that Jesus is affirming the truth. He is assuring Mary and Martha that Lazarus will indeed be raised to life again. We then come to the moment I want to focus on.
“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.
Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” John 11:32-37 (NIV)
This is the moment that I believe one could find confusion in. Why would Jesus weep? We see Him assure Mary and Martha of His control of the situation twice before this moment. He could have totally just healed Lazarus without worrying about crying, right? He absolutely could have done that, but I believe Jesus was trying to share something about His nature, and ultimately the nature of God in this story. Empathy, I believe, is in the nature of God. When His children are in pain, God is not indifferent. Jesus, in these moments, comes onto Mary and Martha’s level and identifies with their pain, so much so that He is moved to tears.
His presence in their pain was not simply sympathetic, but empathetic. He felt with them. God is present in our pain. He does not sit to the side and watch our pain: He is right there in the midst of it. Jesus, in that moment, was not crying out of uncertainty or hopelessness, but out of love. It reminds me of the Gospel. Christ bore all our sin on the cross, carrying our sin, pain, death, and hopelessness, and even becoming it. He then defeated it as He rose from the grave! His dying for us was an act of sacrificial love that not only involved giving Himself for us, but also becoming darkness and sin on the cross. His love is something that steps into the darkness of our lives and shines His light. And as you read further into this story, Jesus then raises Lazarus from the dead.
“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” John 11:38-43 (NIV)
So what this mean for you and me? How does the empathy and compassion Jesus showed to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus translate into our lives and apply to us? It ultimately means everything.
For us to reflect Christ in the fullness of His nature, it is so important to reflect the compassion He operated in. How do you carry yourself around people in pain? Do you sit with them, or do you stand over them? Do you preach at them, or speak with them? Do you listen, or do you just talk? The thing about empathy is that it requires a level of inconvenience. It is messy.
What is amazing about Jesus is that He spoke truth and life into the siblings’ situation, but it was accompanied by empathy. It was accompanied by Him bearing their burdens and stepping into their situation with them. That is what it takes for us. It takes a late-night phone call, an hour over coffee, and listening when you may not want to. It takes stepping into someone else’s shoes, not to completely understand, but to simply walk through their situation with them. We can never be someone’s Jesus, so we cannot necessarily carry all of someone’s burdens, but we can help them look towards Jesus in their pain and see a hope beyond what they can see in the moment. Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” As Christians, we are called to have empathy for those around us.
So whose life do you need to step into, and reflect Jesus onto? How can you show Christ-like empathy to someone this week? Whether it is a fellow student, co-worker, family member, or even an issue going on in the world, I truly believe we are called to reflect the empathy and compassion that Jesus showed in this powerful story in Scripture. It simply takes open ears, a heart open to the Spirit’s leading, and a compassion that only can come from Christ.