Today, with the help of technology and advanced transportation methods, the gospel has reached nearly every corner of the earth. It’s amazing to think about the millions of people, who just a few decades ago had no access to the gospel, now have the entire Bible in their pocket.
With that said, it’s obvious that we haven’t always gotten it right with our efforts to evangelize. We carry the Good News, but those outside of the Church probably have a hard time believing it right now.
The Church has a big problem in today’s world. And it’s not a new one or a rare one either. I have it, I would bet that you have it, and as evidenced by a recent tweet — our president has it. It’s a little idea called “exercising empathy” and is what inspired me to write this article.
The state of California is fighting a wildfire crisis that has claimed multiple lives and thousands of homes and businesses. In the midst of this crisis, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to post the following tweet.
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for a chorus of criticism and rebuttals to erupt on Twitter, and for good reason. Regardless if you agree with him or not, taking political potshots at a state going through a crisis feels a little tone deaf. It ignores the pain that is being felt by millions of Californians who are currently suffering, and in some cases, running for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
This is a shining example of what it looks like to act and speak without empathy, and it’s something I think we can all learn from — especially the Church. In full disclosure, the reason I noticed the severe lack of empathy in this tweet is likely because it’s something I’m currently trying to get better at.
Empathy is the act of understanding the experiences and feelings of others — and I’m not good at it. I easily forget to think about others and I often act with considering what someone might be going through.
This is no more apparent than in my marriage. I often get home from work, and instead of thinking about the stress my wife just went through after spending the day with a classroom full of hyped-up pre-schoolers, I think about my agenda: A.K.A. go sink into the couch for the night.
It’s a fight to put myself in her shoes and exercise empathy, but it’s a fight that I know I must be committed to. Without empathy, division is inevitable. It goes the same elsewhere in life. Until we try to understand the other side, we’ll stay safely tucked in on “our side,” building walls in the process.
What I’m trying to become more and more aware of as a follower of Jesus, is that acting without empathy is inexcusable. It’s a quality that could not be more clearly expressed than it is in the life of Jesus. It is through Jesus that we see God literally putting Himself in our shoes — divinity in the flesh.
But He didn’t stop there. In ministry, He took things to the extreme in order to empathize with our condition. He touched unclean lepers, He spit into blind eyes, stooped in the dirt next to prostitutes, and traveled out of his way to meet people right where they were — whether in a synagogue full of religious zealots who disagreed with Him or in a muddy field surrounded by those who were in awe of Him.
As the Church, it should be our mission to emulate this kind of selfless, sacrificial, self-forgetting love. This is what true evangelism and true discipleship looks like, and this is what I believe is the number one thing stopping the Church from changing the world today.
Evangelism is important, but evangelism without empathy isn’t really evangelism at all — it’s just religious propaganda. Perhaps this is why culture often seems to have such a knee-jerk reaction to the Christian faith. We’ve been so concerned with changing people that we’ve forgotten to love them first.
Consequently, this why I’m not a big proponent of street-corner preaching and randomly handing out religious tracts. It’s why I think we need to connect with someone’s heart before we try to change their mind. And it’s why I think we as the Church, often get it so wrong.
People don’t need more information or another program to join; they need to know that someone cares for them and believes in them. They need to know that they’re loved and accepted by their Heavenly Father. They need to know that they’re seen and that they can be forgiven and free.
This is a problem that has plagued the Church for too long. We’ve gotten great at building programs, dishing out our doctrine, and telling people what they’ve done wrong (not to mention the time we spend criticizing what others churches are doing wrong) — all without considering what people have been through.
Our president has a long way to go in learning to empathize with his constituents, but I’m afraid our churches do too. I’m afraid I do too. And I’m afraid that until the world knows that the Church loves them, they’re not going to want to listen to what we have to say.
We can’t fully understand someone’s perspective until we’re willing to expose ourselves to it. Exposure leads to empathy, and if we want to make this world a better place, we have to be willing to get our hands dirty — even at the risk of being misunderstood.
It seems like Jesus was always willing to take this risk. In Scripture, He’s most often found hanging out and pursuing those who believed and acted the least like Him: prostitutes, tax collectors, abusive religious rulers, and the misfits of society.
The idea of rubbing elbows with someone who fundamentally opposes your beliefs may seem like a strange strategy for change, but it’s the countercultural way of the gospel.
Whether it’s our President you disagree with, or your co-worker that seems to ooze negativity, or the addicted friend that you’ve tried helping for the 6th time — empathy isn’t easy. And while exercising empathy doesn’t excuse inappropriate behavior or beliefs, it does make this world a little more livable.
If we want to change the world, let’s try starting there. I’m afraid, we’ve all still got a long way to go.