The other day I engaged in an exercise in empathy. Lying in bed preparing for my nightly prayer time, I started thinking about the earthquake on the Turkey-Syria border from a few days earlier. I had seen photos and video of the devastation, I had heard the stories and anguished cries of loss, I had observed the looks of shocked disbelief on the faces of the survivors, and I realized I had witnessed all these things before. I had seen this movie countless times over the course of my life, and it occurred to me that I was in danger of letting this instance of suffering wash over me and get lost in the scores of other natural disasters I had been at least dimly aware of in the past.
I didn’t want that to happen.
So I decided to practice some empathy. I tried to imagine that the comfortable bed and safe room I was in was suddenly, without warning, plunged two stories to the street below as my house crumbled. The hardest part about that was the “without warning” part. The idea that one moment I could be drifting off to sleep in the quiet of my house and in the next I could be unceremoniously dropped onto a pile of rubble, possibly trapped, almost certainly injured, in the frigid winter cold, was something I didn’t want to contemplate.
But I forced myself to contemplate it, and to contemplate further the uncertainty of life in this world. The same thing could happen to me at any time without warning. There are no guarantees in life. Violence and death can spring upon us at any time, mocking the plans we have made and the hopes we have cherished. Worse, it can happen to someone we love while we are forced to watch helplessly. I imagined being trapped in the rubble and hearing my child’s voice from the other room. I imagined the pain and rage that helplessness would inspire, and it occurred to me that this empathy business is not for the faint of heart.
As I reflected on all this, the thought came that the Incarnation was God’s grand exercise in empathy. Upon entering the world as a human being, God no longer had to wonder what it was like for God’s children to go through crises or disasters, to feel the agony of helplessness, to want to shake one’s fist at the heavens in bitter recrimination. God no longer has to wonder what it’s like to get that diagnosis of cancer or Parkinson’s Disease in the prime of life. God doesn’t have to wonder what it’s like to get the phone call from the hospital or the state trooper: “There has been an accident....” God never again has to wonder what it’s like to face unfair criticism or persecution, to be threatened with punishment for standing up for the truth, to be unjustly condemned and put to death. God doesn’t have to wonder; God knows.
Some people blame God for deadly diseases or natural disasters. Insurance companies routinely call such things “acts of God.” But the God of empathy, the God of Incarnation, would never—could never—be so cold and calculating as to send tragedies like the Turkey earthquake in either punishment or caprice. God lies on the bed as it falls. God is trapped in the rubble. God wrings the divine hands and ululates in grief as the bodies are recovered. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that “only a suffering God can help.” That’s what we have in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ: a God who suffers with us. A God who empathizes.
I said earlier that there are no guarantees in life. That was wrong. We have the rock-solid guarantee of the abiding presence of the God of empathy, the one who goes through all our trials with us and gives us the strength and hope to carry on even through the darkest, coldest night. Thanks be to God!
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Grace and peace,