Empathy in a Time of War
“But tell God I'mma need a whole lotta help keeping it together, I'm smilin' in everyone's face, I'm cryin' whenever they leave the room. They don't know the battle I face. They don't understand what I'm going through.” (Lecrae)
A constant temptation for Christians is for us to interpret the world through a warfare lens. A lens that says we are the good guys and those people over there are the enemies, go get them! We’ve seen this throughout our history in religious warfare, crusades and inquisitions, and now in the (thankfully less bloody) mode of culture warfare. We are the good guys, and those are the enemies! The liberals, the socialists, the capitalists, the racists, the communists, the (insert opposition political/cultural group here)! If you defeat them everything will be okay!
But the reality is that the bible doesn’t call us to a warfare mentality regarding other people. After all, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against sin and evil. Instead, the bible calls us to an empathy based mentality. John Watson was a Scottish pastor who wrote novels under the pen name Ian McLaren. It is believed that he is the first to have penned the now famous words, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I find it appropriate that a Christian was the one to pen those words, because empathy has always been a crucial element to the Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul exhorted us, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:4) As Christians, it is not optional for us to be empathetic. It is not optional for us to seek to know and understand the joys and pains of those God has put into our lives. Both those who are like us and those who are different.
Over the last decade, a huge part of my own journey on the issue of racism and racial reconciliation in America has been realizing that not everyone’s experience looks like mine. That the thing commanded of me by the bible’s exhortations to empathize (Romans 12:15, I Peter 3:8, Gal. 6:2, Eph. 4:32, 1 Cor. 12:26) is to trust that while my minority brothers and sisters’ experiences might be different than mine, that in no way shape or form diminishes their reality!
Our job in empathy as Christians is to take the golden rule to its logical conclusion. I want people to value me, trust me, and love me in the way that connects to me. Thus, I have to value, trust, and love others in the way that connects to them. For us as Christians, being people who value others isn’t optional, it’s part of the job description.
One place that we don’t often take the idea of empathy is into the realm of our inner life. How many of us have ourselves cast in the role of greatest critic and source of condemnation? For how many of us does our #1 enemy dwell in our own reflection? And why not? If we have a clear self-view, we are the first audience for all of our selfish, self-destructive, manipulative, and hurtful actions and words. In the normal way of the world, why would we not be our own worst enemies and our own biggest critics?
God, through his magnificent mercy and kindness for us, has answered this question. He answered the question on the cross. Because on the cross he told us that in this life we would never stop having those things to criticize. That we would never fully defeat our selfish, self-destructive, sinful self. That despite this reality, even because of it, he would give us his righteousness. He would carry our burden of sin and give us his weight of glory.
The answer for guilt and self-condemnation is not in increased self-confidence or a dismissal of the heaviness of our burden. It is laying down our burdens at the foot of the cross. It is in giving up the fight that we find victory. Andrew Peterson wrote, “How does it end when the war that you're in, is just you against you against you? Gotta learn to love your enemies too.”
In the end, the only way to win the war is to accept that the responsibility for winning it does not rest upon us. Whether that is the war within, or the cultural battles going on around us. The Holy Spirit works to transform us into the image of Christ through our many internal battles. Our hope in this world is not in victory in any cultural battle, but rather in Jesus’ victory over sin and death and his return to make all things new.
Does this mean we don’t get involved in any cultural conflicts? Certainly not! Empathy demands that we work for the good of our brothers and sisters, of our communities, of our nation, of our world! It demands that we seek biblical justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
We do all this, however, knowing that the outcome is not our job. That, “Our God will fight for us.” (Neh. 4:20) That, “The battle belongs to the Lord.” (I Samuel 17:47) That all the promises of God find their “Yes” in Jesus! (2 Cor. 1:20) Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can lay down our weapons. After all, when we look at heaven, we don’t see weapons. In fact we see the swords being beaten in farming tools. So we can focus on growing and building, and remember that the battle belongs to the Lord.