A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Jesus: The Great Empathizer

One of the hardest things about the way some churches react to abuse situations is the complete lack of empathy. It’s almost as if because they have their doctrine of “no divorce” they don’t WANT to understand for fear they might end up compromising their beliefs. I felt this very keenly as I was going through my divorce, and at that time I had a thought that of any person in history who has been able to empathize with the oppressed, Jesus was the master. But he wasn’t just a master of empathy, he was also a master of knowing and preaching the truth. We conservatives get the latter usually, but oh how often we miss the former.

So I had an idea, and I wanted to share this idea with you as a good exercise when you aren’t feeling empathy from those who claim they love you. I did a personal Bible study in which I read through the Gospels noting where Jesus was teaching truth and where he was showing empathy. I asked myself who he was talking to and what point he was trying to make. I saw very vividly a truth I’d already known, but it was so encouraging to see it so clearly: the people he spent the most time talking to about the truth were the religious leaders: those who were responsible for the truth and hid it from the world with their abusive doctrines. Jesus rebuked the pharisees hard (remember the whip?). But when he interacted with the oppressed: always empathy and compassion. He didn’t accept their sin and didn’t even shy away from pointing it out, but I always saw another level to what he was saying. There was a consistent message of “I know you, I understand why you do what you do, and I am here to heal you and set you free.”

It seems we have this backwards, don’t we? We spend time telling truth to the oppressed (“You know that you’re not sinless, right?”) and showing compassion to the abusers of doctrine (“That preacher is so blessed- his preaching makes me uncomfortable sometimes, but he has a solid doctrine and he’s not afraid to challenge his congregation with difficult subjects”). If we know Christ better and see his empathy, maybe we can become better empathizers ourselves without compromising the truth.

17 Comments

  1. This really makes me wonder? I mean it is probably a blessing i did not know what I was up against at church? So was it the lack of empathy, or misguided empathy? Or was it that they just so felt the need to support the down trodden one? The one that appeared to be struggling with so much sin? Therefore the abused spouse is held to higher judgement for the lack of understanding that she or he should be more empathetic to the struggle between good and evil?

    Makes my head spin. Even if an abuser is shown empathy, they do not recieve it, because they do not actually posses it? What they are after is sympathy right? Even though they do not have that so much, rather they thrive on recieving it, as a messege of “”its okay, you are not so bad, all is forgiven, go forth and prosper!””

    Eh? I think the last part may have been from star wars?

    Forgive me, but when I was saved God did not designate wether I was to be a conservative, a liberal, a Babtist, a non denominatinal fellowship, a lutheran, a pes….well I cannot spell the others, but do you understand? So I wonder if anybody else is as confused as I get? Perhaps I am just not evolved enough in my christian walk, so to speak to get it?

    • Jeff S

      Memphis Rayne, I think all of our situations are different, but for me it was definitly a lack of empathy. The agreed my spouse was abusive, but their doctrine told them that no divorce was allowed so rather than diving in and trying to understand my pain, they quoted “scriptural truths” at me.

      But when we look at Jesus, that is not how he responded: he was very empathetic to the opressed. He didn’t spend hours quoting them doctrine and setting up hurdles for them to jump over. He loved them and he healed them. And that kind of reaction is what was missing, at least in my situation.

      • Good gravies!!!! My point exactly, its just hard to grasp how so many Christian counselors in power of over seeing marriages could over look, or not have empathy towards somebody in such pain!

  2. Bethany

    Jeff- I have definitely seen the “not wanting to understand” aspect. Especially in the “reformed” camps as I’m sure Jeff C can contest too. The pastors of reformed churches tend to take pride in there knowledge of doctrine even to the point of ignoring the blaring consequences of holding the doctrine. “God says that he hates divorce, so if you are a good Christian you will NEVER get a divorce. Extenuating circumstances? No such thing. God’s providence put you in that situation and so you will stay there until death do you part.” This attitude is definitely not the attitude of Christ!!

    • Jeff S

      I’ll be honest that I love to talk doctrine and spend hours into the night discussing many finer points of theology, but we have to not treat the Bible like it’s a puzzle to be solved, and then once we “solve” it we get so nervous that anything might fall out of place we just ignore the consequences.

      If your “solution” oppresses people, then it’s time to hit the drawing board. And a good place to start is watching Jesus interact with the oppressed.

      And it’s ok to re-think doctrine once we realize we didn’t get it the first time. Better to be right than hang on to our pride.

      • Bethany

        I AGREE!! I love a good doctrinal debate, but to what sacrifice? I have always said that “If you can prove it to me with scripture, sound reason, and good conscience I will believe it.”
        I think most forget the good conscience part…

      • joepote01

        As I read this, I realized that, although I still love discussing Christ and biblical truth, I don’t enjoy the same discussions, in the same way, that I once did.

        I used to enjoy debates, points and conterpoints of theological discussions. Anymore, I am quickly bored with those sorts of discussions, and see them as largely ineffective.

        Rather than viewing theology as a puzzle to be solved, I now see God’s truth more as something to be marveled at and viewed from different vantage points. The discussions I enjoy the most tend to include a lot of phrases like, “God showed me the most amazing thing as I was reading a familiar passage this morning,” or “Yes, and have you noticed…”

        Not legal debate, but rather the excitement of disciples marveling at God’s goodness…

      • Jeff Crippen

        Joe – I am experiencing the same thing. I used to snag all kinds of books on doctrine and careful exposition. I’m sure that I still love those things, but they have taken a back seat right now as a result of these past two years especially being immersed in hands on real-life ministry and injustice. The Scripture is still there and it still jumps off the page at me, but in a different and more practical, everyday life way.

      • joepote01

        I guess one place this shows is the style in which I chose to write my book. I intentionally chose a presentation style that did not require any external references apart from scripture.

        I can’t tell you whether or not it was the most effective style, but it reflects where my heart is, right now.

        My thought was that the people most prone to require proof texts and large numbers of cross-references to other topical writings are also the people least likely to accept a new perspective even after it has been proven. That’s not who I was writing to…

      • Jeff S

        Yes, I am also driven toward the practical. The “gotcha” is when what seems like abstract doctrine really affects our practical actions.

        I’ve been following a discussion on TGC about whether believers are “Totally Depraved”. Lot’s of discussion around whether it’s the “old nature” or our “flesh” that causes us to still sin. It was all very heady and theological- but there is a practical aspect. While I suspect most of the participants agree on the core ideas that we are saved by grace alone and enter a process of sanctification, the question no one was asking was how we apply these ideas to real situations- like for instance handling an abuser who claims he is believer.

        I thought it was an important discussion, but it came off as being theological nuance and an interesting debate rather than something that really effects people in the “real world”.

  3. Jeff Crippen

    The sound doctrine is vital, but it is only sound (healthy) when it leads to the same ends that Christ exemplifies. Wrath toward the truly wicked who oppress the weak and empathy toward those in bondage. I am thinking that the sound doctrine/lack of empathy scenario you have written about here must be the thing that Jesus rebuked the church at Ephesus for -

    (Rev 2:2-5 ESV) 2 ¶ “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

    • That’s an excellent application of the Revelation passage, Jeff C.

    • Jeff S

      Agreed- such strong words that we must heed.

  4. This post was just what I needed today. It truly blessed me. Thank you.

    • Jeff S

      I’m so glad Karen. Thanks for the encouraging response!

  5. Rebecca

    This is really beautiful and so encouraging. Thank you Jeff S.

    “We spend time telling truth to the oppressed (“You know that you’re not sinless, right?”) and showing compassion to the abusers of doctrine”

    Exactly. How in the world did come about? If we’re all sinners, why then does the oppressor get more compassion than the one left bleeding on the roadside. Thank you for pointing to the fact this isn’t what Jesus modeled.

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