Empathy for All: A Sermon on Empathy by Rev. Amie Vanderford

Rev. Amie Vanderford, The LabOratory Church

This sermon was first originally given in August 2020, and may be found on The LabOratory’s YouTube channel here: 

Rev. Amie VanderfordScripture:  Job 2:11-13
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

I.  What Empathy Is
The book of Job primarily asks the question “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?” This happens through a dialogue between Job, his friends, and Godself, Job 2:11-13 demonstrates a rare moment of empathy from Job’s friends. At this point in the story, Job has lost his children, his wealth, and his health, all while basically being a good guy. In popular culture, we are told that Job epitomizes patience; however, what he actually represents is someone who doesn’t give up on God — despite his massive amounts of suffering. He does question God, however, and begs God to address his case and find out why he suffers so.

When Job’s friends come upon the scene and see how he suffers, they weep on his behalf. When they sit next to him, there are no words available to console him nor fix the problem, so they simply sit with him for seven days and nights in silent solidarity.
Their ability to feel his pain and then be silently present with him in his deep suffering is one of the best examples of empathy in the biblical texts.

We heard from both Brene Brown and Thaddeus about what empathy is, so I want to take some time to explore what empathy is not. Just as Job’s friends initially serve as a prime example of empathy, once the seven days are up and they open their mouths, we learn what empathy is not.

II.  What Empathy Isn’t
Latin American Liberation Theologian Gustav Gutierrez, in his book On Job, describes how their theology of temporal retribution makes them sorry comforters indeed. This theology basically claims that (in this life) you will be rewarded if you do good and are deserving, and you will be punished and suffer if you do bad. Job’s friends, after their week of silence, begin questioning him about what he did to offend God.

They beg him to reflect upon his life, and confess his sins, so that he may be free of suffering. When he continues to claim that he has done no deeds worthy of such suffering, they become annoyed at his arrogance, and claim that he must have sinned. The more they continue this repetitive line of judgmental questioning, with assurance of their own correctness, the more angry and offended Job becomes. Instead of taking the time to listen to his side, they dig in their heels and insist that he is headed towards blasphemy by questioning God.

When I was studying for this sermon and re-read Gutierrez’ book, it reminded me of my childhood and the confusion I felt about the way I was taught to understand God. I was taught that to be a Christian, and further, to go to heaven after death, one had to accept Jesus as the Son and Embodiment of God, and as one’s personal savior.
Additionally, this meant that we were to go out into all of the world and share this good news, and ‘bring people to Christ’ in order to save their souls from Hell.

Like Job, I had questions about what this said about God. If Jesus embodied total empathy and was willing to die and be a sacrifice to ‘save us from our sinful natures,’ then why did we need to go around saving souls? For one thing, wouldn’t that have already been covered by Jesus? And for another, if God was so loving and empathetic to our existence, why would God send people who didn’t believe in God, or people who believed in a different version of God, to Hell? Needless to say, there is a lot to unpack with that, and no one in my family nor religious communities could ever give me an answer that made sense. Like Job’s friends, they refused to question what their views actually said about a so-called loving and merciful God, and I was instructed to believe it without question or suffer in Hell.

What might cause people to choose to adhere to a stagnant view of God rather than empathize and care for those who might believe differently? In a word, fear. If Job’s friends had remained empathetic to Job’s innocence and line of questioning, then they, by following their own theology, would’ve had to accept that God might have unjustly caused Job’s suffering. As much as they were willing to question Job in order to defend their comfortable and familiar view of God, they dared not question what that said about the God they worshipped. If God could cause such suffering to a basically good man, what bad things might happen to them?

Although Job’s friends refuse to budge from how they talked about God, they served as a useful tool in helping Job refine his arguments against their theology of retribution and see a fuller and more diverse view of God.

Fast forward to the present.

The idea that if we don’t accept Jesus’ grace, we will go to hell smacks of retribution, as well, and this has caused great damage in God’s name. Imagine for a second the idea that if I say this prayer, not only am I saved from Hell, but any sin I may commit will be covered by that grace, and in return, I just have to help other people make that same choice. That is not empathy. That is condemnation of all people who do not agree with this one interpretation of Jesus’ purpose here on earth, and gives us no incentive to follow what Jesus actually commanded: to love one another in our actions and our words!

This narrow focus turns us to sympathy and the paternalism of saving souls from Hell, rather than empathy to actually love people in this life as Jesus did. This abdicates us of the responsibility we were actually given and causes us to focus on what is actually God’s responsibility.

Look at the state of the world today in regard to the lack of empathy amongst so-called Christians in this country. Do we actually follow Jesus’ lead and show empathy and refuse to judge and still feed and teach to anyone regardless of outcome? or do we return to legalism and judgment which Jesus specifically taught against?
Remember: Matthew 7:1-2: says “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment, you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

The point is, showing we care, and putting ourselves in another’s shoes is better than judging people for not following our advice. Who are we to judge people who don’t follow our advice? Do we not all make mistakes? How do we want people to treat us when we do?

Not all of our individual experiences are universal, so empathy allows us to be kind even when we don’t understand what someone is going through because we may not have experienced it.

III.  What do we do when we don’t have the energy to be empathetic?

I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that when we are all experiencing suffering and difficulty, it can be overwhelming to sit with the pain of others. When we feel like we are barely holding on to our own situations, the idea of being focused and present for the pain of others seems unfathomable. I get it, I was there myself over the last couple of weeks. Yet, even in these times, there are steps we can take to get back to empathy for others.

First, we practice empathy for ourselves. We examine and sit with our own feelings without judgment or fixing them. We simply accept that we have them. As we feel the feelings, we begin to understand what we need in order to refill. An empty cup cannot pour out for others!

Perhaps we are lacking in time with God, perhaps we aren’t getting enough sleep, or eating healthy enough, perhaps we are focused too much on things we have zero control over, perhaps we have forgotten that we are not in this alone, perhaps we have lost sight of our purpose work, and who God has called us to be. Just as Christ took time away from people to rest and recover and refill his cup through time with God, so should we.

When we become consumed by the pain of others, that is a step beyond empathy, and becomes unhelpful because then we too may become too wrapped up in our own feelings to be of comfort to the person whose emotions we have taken on as our own. As Rev. Ellen Corcella reminded me: This is the time for boundaries, and to remember that “their stuff is their stuff, and our stuff is our stuff,” and to instead be present with the person in that moment with their feelings, without solving or being consumed by them.

At the end of the story in Job (42:7-8), God rebukes Job’s friends for the error of their assumptions about God and Job’s situation, saying “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”

IV.  Conclusion: Why Show Empathy?

Jesus showed us what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves and as He loved us. He not only experienced our pain and suffering, but also sat with people without judgment, fed and healed them without asking what they believed, and was even willing to die to show the power of love over the powers of the world. We are called to show love and empathy as Jesus did.

When we empathize with those who suffer, we are also less inclined to judge, blame, and condemn people during times of suffering. When we are at our lowest, we need comfort, not lectures. Our presence in empathy is about sharing the burden of suffering so that no one must suffer alone. This gives us the safety that we need in order to work through the pain until we are able to gain the insight that brings healing.

We are in desperate need of empathy at a cultural level, as well. As Rev. Dr. William Barber says, “America has a heart problem,” and until we can feel and acknowledge the pain of those suffering (whether from economic poverty or various -isms), we can’t begin to heal together. While empathy does not entail trying to solve or fix a person’s emotional state, the empathy that increases our compassion can motivate us to work towards justice in a world that is apathetic to the suffering of all. Empathy then leads to a change of heart and that leads to changes in actions.

May God grow our empathy and help us to be healing comforters to one another. Amen.