Love, or Empathy in Action

Sin, Love, and What it Means to be Human

Chapter 1: Love, or Empathy in Action

A man lay unmoving on the sidewalk. By his layers of tattered clothes, his chaotic beard, and his dirt-filled wrinkles, he appeared to have long been homeless. He wasn’t begging for money – there was no cup marked “cash or change, anything helps” by his head – he simply lay there, mouth open and drooling, the smell of alcohol heavy on his breath.

Three people passed by. The first, a well-dressed man running late for dinner with his girlfriend, saw the homeless man out of the corner of his eye but considered him little more than an obstacle to pass on his way to the restaurant.

The second, a woman who had just come from church, had been moved by the pastor’s message today about taking care of “the least of these.” She stopped, opened her purse and found a twenty dollar bill, then bent down and tucked it into the pocket of the sleeping man’s coat. Pleased that she’d embodied the gospel for this man, even if in just a small way, she continued on her way.

The third, a recently graduated college student with mounds of student debt and only a part-time job, saw the man and paused. She had no money to give the man, but she sat down next to him and, as he slept, placed her hand on the man’s shoulder. She looked into his face and wondered how long the man had been living on the street. What had brought him to this place? Was he happy here? Did he have a wife? Children? Was there anyone who cared about him?

Of the three people, which one loved the homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk?

As we attempt to identify a common thread running through biblical concepts of sin, we began by considering what sin is not. When Jesus was asked which of the commandments – which of the Jewish laws – was the greatest, he did not answer by picking out one of the thou-shalt-nots as the most important of the prohibitions against sin. Instead, he pointed to a unifying conviction that summed up all the Law and the prophets: Jesus declared that loving God and loving your neighbor was the culmination of it all.

Understanding love, then, is central to our understanding of sin. To know what it means to miss the mark, we must wrestle with what “the mark” even means. The idea of love, in the Bible and in life, is nebulous.

Is it an emotion? Yes.

Is it an action? Yes.

Is it a response? Yes.

Is it a calling? Yes.

Is it personal? Yes.

Is it indescribable? Yes.

Yet none of these concepts, individually or together as a group, aptly conveys the depth of what we mean when we talk about love. Any discussion of love must contain all of these ideas and far, far more. Let’s begin this discussion by looking to Jesus and then broadening our conversation to a lightning-fast overview of love in the Bible (specifically in the New Testament). That foundation will allow us to draw out strands of meaning we can use to build a framework of what it means to love.

How Jesus Demonstrates Love

The best place for us to begin is with God’s manifestation of love in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That discussion is too rich and deep to be fully developed here, but we can dip our toes into it by considering God’s incarnational love for us as logically following two steps:

  1. Since God created humanity and knows our deepest, innermost workings…
  2. …God became human to show us what it means to be human: to love and see the humans around us.

This is to confess that God knows us better than we know ourselves and wants us to be our best selves. Jesus didn’t become human only to save us from a cosmic evil, as if we were passive observers of a war he was waging, but also to demonstrate to us what it means to truly be human. It is in this that we are called to participate in the ongoing salvation of the world – it is how we work toward “[God’s] kingdom come, [God’s] will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Beyond the incarnation itself, Jesus demonstrated for us what it means to love in many ways, from the grand arc of his life (God’s self-emptying to take on human-ness, Jesus’ offering of himself as a sacrifice to violence, and Christ’s rising again as a testament to the power of God over death) to the intimate ways in which he interacted with people during his ministry. To do justice to the example of Jesus’ love, we would need to devote an entire book (maybe an anthology!) to examining its breadth, but we can gain valuable perspective by looking particularly at his interaction with the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50.

In this passage, Jesus was dining with a group of religious leaders when a woman broke into the room. This woman was immediately recognized by the dinner guests as “sinful,” which meant that she was probably a local prostitute. note In that Jewish culture, which drew a strict division between the sacred and the profane, she epitomized the profane.

But we should not think of her participation in prostitution as a voluntary sin; rather, she was likely a victim of what we would call sex trafficking today. She had probably been marked by society as unacceptable for marriage – maybe because she had been divorced by her husband, was unable to bear children, or had been raped and was now considered sexually unclean – and, without an extended family to lean on for support, had no alternative but to sell herself to survive.

When she entered the dining room of sacred (lawfully clean) religious leaders, they were appalled – and rightly so, according to the Law. Yet Jesus did not allow them to remove her. Instead, he allowed her to anoint his feet with oil and wash them with her hair.

In verse 44, Jesus asked Simon, the host of the dinner, a pointed question: “Do you see this woman?” He was not questioning their eyesight. The woman was physically right there in front of them. And at this point they had been talking about her for several minutes, so of course they could see her!

No, he was not questioning their sight, he was questioning their compassion. “Do you see her?” Do you see her pain, her brokenness? Do you see her past, her desperation, her cry for hope? Do you see that she is more than a label? That she is not just a “sinful woman,” but a person who carries the image of God? Jesus loved this woman by refusing to see her as an object of her social status, treating her instead as a human worthy of personhood and respect. ref

In the next few verses, Jesus directly challenged the religious leaders on their capacity to display such love as they woman demonstrated. Pointing at the woman, he said that because she recognized the depth of her need for forgiveness, she was able to love more truly than the leaders who only saw their own purity. By knowing herself, by coming to terms with whatever mistakes she’d made in her life, she had developed the ability to love others.

This story has a lot to be unpacked and digested, but before we move into that, we should take a moment to broadly consider what Scripture has to say about love elsewhere.

What the Bible Says About Love

Beyond the examples of Jesus’ life and ministry, the Bible has a lot to say about love, but much of it is focused on describing the evidences of love rather than providing the universal definition that we are trying to find. If we are seeking the root of biblical love, we might say that Scripture provides a lot of detail about the leaves and the branches, but does not give us a clear depiction of what lies beneath the surface.

For example, we can look at the classic chapter on love, the one that’s read at countless weddings as the ultimate description of what it means to love:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

From elsewhere in Scripture, we know that we are called to love our enemies, our neighbors, and our brothers and sisters.

These are wonderful characteristics of love, evidences of love, applications of love; but they do not get to the core of what it means to love. Much like the Law that we discussed in the introduction, these verses give us a barometer of love, but they don’t tell us how to engage in it. They aren’t prescriptive – they don’t give us something we can do in order to love people – because we can do any of those things without actually loving the person. We can be kind, patient, honest, trusting, and so on without loving our neighbors. We can even die for a person without authentically loving them if, for example, our motivations are focused on our own heroism or sense of self-virtue.

In order for us to understand the concept of love well enough to grasp its inverse, we need to explore a more philosophical, existential discussion of it. We need to find the root of all these evidences and characteristics.

There are a couple of instances in which Scripture seems to give more definition to love. Indeed, that very question seems to have been one of the major questions for John. In 1 John 3:16, he states:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

We know what love is – we can define it – by the sacrificial love of Jesus. A chapter later, he says the same thing even more simply:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

To know God is to love. And according to Scripture, the reverse is also true: to love is to know God. Holiness, godliness, is rooted in this reciprocal definition of love that is connected to knowing God and laying down our lives for others. Love is an understanding and an action.

It is no understatement to say that understanding sin and love has implications for our fundamental understanding of the gospel itself.

Love as Compassionate Response?

In the story we discussed earlier, the one where Jesus asked the religious leaders if they “saw” the “sinful woman” at his feet, I used the word “compassion” as an example of seeing her. Compassion is often used in close association with love – sometimes even as a synonym for it. So can we think of love in this way?

Compassion is usually thought of as a feeling of sympathy for someone in a bad situation. I feel compassion for my relative who was recently diagnosed with cancer, or for the single mother who was just fired from her job, or for starving children in third-world countries. And compassion, when it is genuine, moves me to act: I spend time with that relative, praying with them and caring for them; I do what I can to make sure that single mother is able to provide for her family; and I partner with an agency to provide food and education for the children in those third-world countries.

But compassion is a response to a difficult situation – it doesn’t apply to people who aren’t struggling. I wouldn’t say that I have compassion for the the coworker who just got the promotion that I was hoping to receive, or that I feel compassionate toward the politician who voted to raise my taxes. Yet I am called to love them. So while compassion can rightly be seen as a component of love, we cannot say it is the same as love.

There is another word, though – one we don’t use as often – that I think may be a closer picture of the love described in the Bible.

Love as Empathy, Looking Outward

My friend JR Forasteros recently wrote a book called Empathy for the Devil that explores the spiritual practice of empathy. He takes several of the most recognizable “villains” of the Bible and paints a humanizing portrait of them, looking at their background stories and personality traits that might have led them to make the villainous choices they made.

In the book, JR describes empathy as “the ability to understand another person’s position,” and he clarifies that “[t]he goal of this [book] is to understand, not to exonerate. Empathy does not insist we condone the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but only that we see the world from their perspective.” ref

The practice of empathy challenges us to see the complexities that make up a person, to pay attention to the individual’s background, needs, motivations, and goals. Empathy means that we do the hard work of understanding where they come from and why they do what they do. Regardless of whether we believe we would make the same choices if we were in their shoes, empathy is the determination we make to listen to their story and see their perspective of the world, to search their souls until we find the image of God at the core of their being.

This type of empathy sounds a lot like how the Bible describes love. It is what Jesus did with the woman who interrupted his dinner with the religious leaders, and it also seems to fit well with the other portions of Scripture we’ve examined. Empathy compels me to be patient and kind; to see the cost associated with the things they’ve been blessed with (and to appreciate the things I have that they don’t); to protect, hope, and trust; to persevere and, at the height of empathy, to give up my life for them.

When I empathize with my neighbor, I think of their needs before my own because I feel their reality of their pain and have compassion on them. I don’t envy the promotion they received because I am too busy celebrating with them. I don’t get angry with a person for their poor driving habits because I understand the stress that made them feel like they needed to rush through traffic.

Empathy is like unselfishness, but carries a deeper resonance of the gospel. Whereas the drive to be unselfish is still focused on myself – it’s a mirror looking inward at myself as I try to be a better person – empathy, like love, is entirely focused outward, intent only on “seeing” the people around me.

This outward focus is an intrinsic part of what it means to love. It is a theme that pervades Scripture. We have looked at one example of this from the life of Jesus, but it can be found throughout the Gospels – and nowhere more strongly than in the reality of Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion, a lived example of the selflessness of love.

The apostle Paul explores this depiction of love in many of his letters. Perhaps the most poetic example comes from Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In this passage and many others, Paul illustrates that we, as followers of Christ, are called to participate in the cruciform love of our Lord. This is a safeguard against a temptation to think that love is nothing more than a feeling or disposition. It is not enough for us to simply see a person as human; we must also respond in a way that respects their humanity.

Empathy Demands Action

When fully embraced, the practice of empathy cannot be a passive, internalized process; it requires me to act on my understanding of an individual’s personhood. Love causes me to extend to others the grace I myself want to receive, to treat others the way I want to be treated. It beckons me to pursue justice for them.

And such a concept of Christian love requires both empathy and its active response. It is possible for us to be helpful (appearing to be loving) without empathy, but we cannot call that love; and we can empathize without acting, but neither is that love.

In a very real way, empathy is the practice that allows me to see others as human, and empathy is intensified into Christian love by our active participation in it. We love a person when genuine empathy compels us to them-focused action. Living this kind of empathic love drives our attention to the spark of God within each individual, which is, according to John, the very act of knowing God.

The more I think about it, and the more I compare these ideas with the depictions of love found in Scripture, the more I am convinced that this idea of seeing the humanity in people lies at the very root of a Christian definition of love. And if seeing people as human is foundational to the act of love, if that is “the mark” to which we are called to live, then “missing the mark” is the failure to see or act in a way that recognizes the basic humanity within another person.

In the next chapter, we will use the framework of love we have just sketched out to examine what it means to dehumanize our neighbors, and we will consider how it impacts the way we view celebrities, politicians, romantic partners, enemies, and everyone else around us. We will also ask whether we can apply the same standard of humanization to our perceptions of ourselves and our understanding of God.

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