Advent Day 1: Empathy


I haven’t written much on my blog lately.  In fact, I haven’t posted since Election Day.  

I have many reasons, including trying to focus on other writing, continuing to struggle through this transition, and the intense discouragement I feel over both the state of US politics and the widening chasm between those of differing political beliefs.  “Discouraged” may not be a strong enough word; I’m depressed as hell about it.  

And today brings Advent.  I’ve been staring at this computer for the past 2+ hours, trying to figure out what I might say.  There hasn’t exactly been a popular outcry for a return of my blog, but enough people have said they appreciate it–and I know writing it can be healthy for me–so I want to try another Advent series.  This one will be different.  



God created us and God knows everything.  Jesus followers believe both of those statements.  

Sympathy is feeling bad for another’s pain.  Empathy is sharing in another’s pain.  

Put another way, sympathy means concern for another from the outside, from my perspective.  Empathy means concern for another from understanding and relating to their point of view and to their experience.  If I sympathize, I feel bad for them.  If I empathize, I feel their pain along with them.  

Among the paradoxes I find trying to know God is this:  What did God learn when Jesus became incarnate?  

Did God learn what human pain felt like from the inside?  Did God know that already from the outside?  We talk about how God is present everywhere and therefore “the outside” can’t really apply to God.  

Luke 2:52 says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  Then Hebrews 2 tells us that Jesus became perfect through suffering and Hebrews 5 adds that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.*

I can more easily wrap my head around that Jesus learned obedience because it makes sense to me that obedience tested and fulfilled is more truly obedience than obedience in theory.  It’s tougher to grasp what Jesus knew and when: he grew in wisdom as he aged, like the rest of us?  He didn’t know the hearts of all people when he was, say, two?

But I’m not dabbling with “Can God create a rock too big for God to lift…” stuff here.  I’m in awe of incarnation and especially of this: the almighty God of the Universe who is eternal and knows all things, became limited, became weak, became vulnerable, and experienced our pain directly, not indirectly.  Sometimes I’m comforted when I hear “God cries with you” and “God suffers when you do.”  Other times, I think (or say) “The hell God does!  I’m depressed and insecure and feel like a failure and God may sympathize but God does not know how that feels to empathize.”  

But maybe God does.  Maybe Jesus felt depressed when folks he loved gave up on his ridiculous ideas and went back to a wiser, safer life.  Maybe Jesus knows exactly what loss feels like because he experienced more of it as a human than any of us could.  Did God empathize with us before Jesus lived and grew in Mary?  Perhaps.  I know God empathizes with us us through being born, being a poor refugee, being a beloved and despised teacher.  

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, apologetically, “I’m really excited about this but it’s such a small thing.  It’s silly.”  I’ve said it myself, too often.  But I think Jesus rejoiced in small things.  I think Jesus knows how that feels.  I think our celebration of small things–sunlight through clouds, grass on bare feet, a bite of a good apple, a cute dog–glorifies God and emulates Jesus.  Small cups of water and little children and two pennies in an offering and good wine at a wedding.  Jesus knows how important these are; Jesus feels how sacred these are.  

Hebrews says we have a high priest (Jesus) who suffered every temptation we do.  True.  He also laughed at bad jokes and ran on the sand.  He empathizes with our whole human experience.  He had both a former tax collector (so pro-government he was considered a traitor to his people) and a zealot (so anti-government he called for violent revolution) calling him “rabbi.”  

He wept over Jerusalem.  He wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus, who would be walking out of the grave in about five minutes, because he loved them, not abstractly or from a distance, not at arms’ length, but with his arms around them, feeling them shake when they cried.  

I feel distant from God.  I do.  I haven’t heard God much since I moved back to the States.  Lots of reasons, lots of idea and theories why that might be. I’m swimming in deep water.  

But I don’t feel abandoned by God because, as Advent reminds us, God is with us.  Immanuel.  God chose not to stand outside or watch from “above” or even to know us solely as Creator; God knows us as we are from being one of us. 

God empathizes.  


*”Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;  and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”


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8 thoughts on “Advent Day 1: Empathy

  1. Beverlee Paiane

    Dear Mike,
    Good to hear from you. Your post made me think of the Proverb (12.25) “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but an encouraging word makes it glad.” This was an encouraging word. So thank you.
    Love you and yours!

  2. Trish Goedecke

    I don’t suppose it comes to your mind as you write, “I’ll try not to bring my readers to tears this time.”

    Dang it, Mike ~

    • You called me out, Trish. I have literally never had that thought when writing this blog.

      I had to go back and read through to try to see what got you. Small things? Or the conclusion? Those are my guesses.

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