the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
If you blink, you’ll miss it. Jesus was angry.
In the Gospel according to Mark (1:40-42), the author tells this familiar story: “A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
The phrase, “Moved with pity,” comes from translators who grappled with the Greek word, orgistheis. Although they get the essence of orgistheis correct, their translation lacks the punch and power of the original Greek. The Koine Greek word orgistheis literally means, “to be angry.”
Jesus was mad at the leper’s condition and he allowed himself to be moved to action. So he touched the man and made him clean. Jesus had empathy for the man with a horrendous disease and healed him.
“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose.”
How about us? When we come in contact with people who are hurting, do we choose to help? Perhaps, if we don't feel concern for others, it gets us off the hook to help them.
Some have argued persuasively that empathy is not a choice, but is rather like a gift—you either have empathy or you don’t. I’ve even heard people report that they’re not good at empathy—as though empathy is like shooting free throws from the charity stripe.
The implications are significant. If empathy is an attribute that people have or don’t have, then it gives humanity an out when we come face to face with people who are hurting.
“Sheriff, I didn’t help her because I didn’t feel pity for her.”
Are we to be okay with these kinds of statements? Is our lack of emotional concern a good reason to not help others in need? In a compelling argument entitled, “Empathy Is Actually a Choice,” published in the New York Times on July 10, 2015, the authors (Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham) state authoritatively that it is not.
Make no mistake, empathy fails us. We are moved by some tragedies, and unmoved by others. We’re not just parsing words, here. There is something at stake. For you see, when we feel empathy we are typically moved to help. When we don’t feel empathy, we don’t do anything.
“Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favorites. Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.” (Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham)
But empathy is not a limited resource. We have a choice between caring and not caring. This is a moral issue. “The ‘limits’ to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.” (Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham)
The key phrase there is, “what we want to feel.”
People of faith have language ready-made to describe this. When an individual chooses to not care about the pain of others, the Bible tells us that their “heart is hardened.”
Empathy is not a gift, it’s a discipline. It is a choice. Like many other disciplines, empathy has its challenges and needs to be practiced to be mastered. Empathy requires time to listen to others. Empathy requires emotional space that is pliable. Empathy demands a willingness to hurt—or be angry!-- on behalf of others.
Empathy can be thwarted by our biases and our laziness. Our lack of emotional response can be sabotaged by our self-righteousness and secret desire to condemn others for their mistakes and failings.
A hardened heart is not easily moved. The Bible is clear on this point and one other: It never ends well for that individual (just ask a fella by the name of Pharaoh).
Let’s covenant with one another to do some homework this week. Let’s choose to become more aware of the individuals who do and do not receive our concern and empathy. And then, in that moment, let’s ask the reflective question: Why is that so?
This exercise will require courage to see what’s going on beneath our surface. True, some of us may not feel up to it. Just the same, we might just be convicted by our findings.
And yet, the witness of Jesus’s life and ministry here is deeply compelling. Jesus chooses to help. God commands us to love and to care for our neighbors. And God doesn’t care one ounce if we're not 'feeling it.'