By Mark Vroegop, Crosswalk.com
“Who are you right now?”
As I was sitting next to my wife, her pain-filled question made me realize I had chosen the wrong approach—again. We were talking about an issue she was working through. However, half-way through her explanation, I stopped her. I knew what she needed to do. And I told her.
My advice not only fell flat; it created more pain.
I backtracked and sheepishly asked, “Who would you like right now?” I already knew the answer.
“My husband,” she said.
“What would he do . . . if he was here?” I asked with a smirk, trying to reset the conversation.
“He’d be listening.”
I’ve never forgotten this lesson in my marriage. My wife’s pain didn’t need a quick fix; she needed someone to sit beside her, listen to her, and walk with her through her pain. Solutions and advice would be welcomed, but not if our conversation didn’t begin with heartfelt understanding. Some conversations require empathy.
As I’ve tried to navigate and facilitate racial reconciliation conversations, the “couch lesson” frequently comes to mind. When talking about race, I’ve winced as well-meaning Christians have too quickly jumped to solutions or (worse) to arguing before taking the time to understand. The absence of leading with compassion creates a familiar pattern. Walls go up. Defenses deepen. Historical narratives are lobbed at one another. Hurt calcifies. And everyone wonders, “Why do we try to talk about this anyway?” But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve witnessed empathy change the conversation. When Christ-like concern and gracious patience are practiced, defenses can drop, honesty emerges, and healing can begin. A kind of reconciliation that would be impossible anywhere else can emerge as Christians live out the gospel by “weeping with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Empathy is essential to racial reconciliation.
If the church is going to make progress in this complicated and loaded conversation, we are going to have to grow in our competency in empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Before we can understand how empathy helps, we need to understand what is. You could think of empathy as being “with” someone in their pain. It means to be present—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. Empathy goes all in.
We find an amazing example in the life of Jesus. John 1:14 tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The implication is stunning. God came near. He is with us. Hebrews tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.” The Greek word combines “with” and “suffering” into a compassionate expression. It’s designed to bring comfort for the purpose of motivating action—“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).
Empathy has purpose. Suffering with someone is not an end in itself. A heartfelt understanding is not the only goal. In fact, empathy can be taken too far. It can even be sinful when someone refuses to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Jesus was full of sympathy and full of truth (John 1:14). When it comes to racial reconciliation, practicing biblical empathy is an essential part of the equation. Whether it’s checking in with a friend after a national incident, asking questions the right way, taking a posture of listening, lamenting with a brother or sister in their fear, or seeking to learn, empathy places us on the path toward redemptive conversations.
Five Ways Empathy Helps
Layered and complicated issues like racial reconciliation are not resolved with quick fixes, pious platitudes, or emotional appeals. But starting with empathetic concern can be uniquely helpful.
Here’s what empathy does for racial reconciliation conversations:
Empathy communicates that we know something must be painful. It says, “I see it.” By calling it out and putting an issue on the table, an important validation occurs. Too often conversations about race never begin because painful experiences, events, or perceptions are ignored. Empathy acknowledges the painful reality of the moment. It’s a place to start.
Starting with empathy sends a critical message when it comes to racial reconciliation. It says, “I care.” Rather than jumping into questions, solutions, or a debate, empathy allows us to wisely start a conversation the right way. It moves from merely addressing facts and information, to a concern for the person affected. Empathy leads with a concern for the person, not just the issue.
Where does a conversation about racial reconciliation land on our priority list? It’s easy to avoid the topic out of fear of saying the wrong thing or making things worse. Perhaps we just don’t like the tension. But empathy helps prioritize the issue and communicates the importance of the conversation. Leading with compassion helps us know where to start when we’re tempted to avoid the topic.
Some topics are so loaded with pain that you cannot learn about them from a distance. Understanding the emotions connected to racial-oriented issues opens a door for further growth in one’s knowledge and wisdom. Empathy sets the frame of mind that is necessary to explore the facts and feelings critical to conversations about race and racial injustice.
“What can I do?” It’s a common question asked of those struggling with grief. Many of us have a propensity to “fix it.” Empathy is something we can do when we don’t know what to do. It’s a way to serve the person struggling with the complex emotions of racially-oriented pain. Empathy is an action we take when we’re desperate to tangibly serve.
Complex pain and complicated topics, like racial reconciliation, require more than quick fixes. But they also demand that we refuse to ignore the issue. How can we help when the solution isn’t easy, and the problem shouldn’t be denied? When it comes to racial reconciliation, empathy helps. Heartfelt compassion—either by our presence or our words—opens a door for further conversations. Empathy isn’t the only solution; it’s merely a good way to start. It wisely and compassionately walks alongside a person in grief.
I’ve never forgotten my lesson on the couch. I’ve had to recall that conversation throughout my marriage and when considering what to say in conversations about race. “Who are you right now?” continues to remind me that some issues are deeply loaded with pain. Racial injustice is one of them. And when it comes to racial reconciliation, empathy is the right place to start.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Mark Vroegop is the lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis and the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, the ECPA 2020 Christian Book of the Year, and Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation. He’s married to Sarah, and they have four children and a daughter-in-law.