A Christian Response to Suffering: Empathy

“I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16.2).[1]

“Jesus began to weep” (John 11.35).

In this series, empathy is our third Christian response to suffering.  The other four responses are listening, lament, compassionate service, and hopeful living.  While presently I don’t believe these responses must be employed in the linear progression which I am developing them in this series, I do want to stress that listening must always be our first response.

The difference between the way Job’s friends react to his suffering and the Jesus reacts to the suffering of his friends is night and day.  But the entire scene of Lazarus’ death in John 11 is different.  In v. 31 we are told that other Jews are present “consoling” Mary.  Then after Jesus sees Mary, John tells us, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33).  The word “saw” in this passage could also be rendered as “observe” or “understand.”  The point is that while the action of the word involves seeing with the eyes it is more than just witnessing what is happening as a disinterested bystander, it is to see with an understanding that moves one empathetically.  I believe this same understanding can happen through seeing others suffer or listening to them in their suffering.  Who cannot understand the horror of the Holocaust when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or understand the desperation for freedom when listening to I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr.?  This is the very reason why you see on the late night paid television time commercials filled with pictures of children suffering from starvation and poverty in hopes that your empathy would move you to charity.

Those who suffer often feel alone, as if no one understands. What they need is to know that others are there with them and understand.  The ability to empathize start by our ability to be with those who are suffering, not as quasi-theologians passing judgment and trying to defend our conception of God like the friends of Job’s but like Jesus who joins Mary, Martha, and the other Jews as a listener, as a seer, as one trying to understand. 

Empathy does not require us to have personally experienced whatever form of suffering is at hand nor does it mean we will experience every horror the same as the sufferer.  It simply presumes that we listen and see so that we understand to the degree that we can feel the grief and pain with the sufferer so that the sufferer is not alone.

When our son died, it was not just my wife and I who cried.  It was not just my wife and I who were burdened with immense grief.  Nor was it just my wife and I who were felt like our prayers had gone unheard, who felt the disturbing anguish of wondering why God would allow this to happen.  We were surrounded by many other mourners.  True, some of them had been through what we were going through.  But many of them had never lost a child.  And yet they all understood and were disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  They were their with us as listeners who lamented in prayer, trying as best as they could to stand in our shoes as people also created in the image of God with the ability to love, to feel joy, to understand loss, etc…  And that is why they were able to empathize with us time and time again.

I must say that in the entire struggle it was to make sense of my son’s death, neither my wife nor I felt like we were alone.  We felt the presence of God weeping with us as the community of God’s people joined with us and empathized for us.


[1] All scripture is taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

3 responses to “A Christian Response to Suffering: Empathy

  1. Great Post, Rex! Thanks for sharing your experience with the church!

    some of the most powerful moments in our church over the last 10 years have been moments when one of our family was willing to share their grief with the community, who in turn was willing to come along side and bear that suffering, not for the grieving, but with the grieving. It is such a powerful moment!

  2. Thank you for stopping by the blog and the kind, encouraging words. Those who share how God has been at work in their lives – in times of joy and excitement as well as times of grief and pain – are such powerful witnesses in a postmodern paradigm where experience has more premium than logical reason (not to imply that rationality is ignored completely).

    Grace and peace,


  3. Pingback: A Christian Response to Suffering: Compassionate Service « Kingdom Seeking

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