This article is based on a sermon preached at the College View church in Lincoln, Nebraska, February 13, 2021.
Empathy” is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”1 The popular saying of “walking in someone else’s shoes” comes to mind; and in order to express this reality, we tend to use such expressions as “I feel your pain” or “I understand what you mean.”
But it’s worth noting that sometimes those phrases feel somewhat empty, especially when the disparity of the situation is glaringly obvious. After all, can you really “feel the pain” of a widow dressed in black if you are a bride dressed in white?
Understanding someone is powerful. It’s one of the most significant attributes of humanity; something that, in spite of the results of the Fall, still shows the glimmers of the image of the Creator.
As significant as empathy is, it becomes somewhat limiting if it’s left at that. Having empathy for someone, but not helping them improve their plight, is the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” What actually makes a successful combination occurs when we can pair empathy and empowerment. When our understanding of someone’s plight offers us the ability to give the person in the situation the tools, means, or circumstances that raise them beyond their problems into a different plane of existence. That manifest altruism is also a glimmer of God’s image, a remainder of our original design. This question of understanding doesn’t limit itself to our own interrelated realities; it’s a question that flows all the way to God and asks, Does God understand the human predicament? Does He really understand me?
Since we are asking the question, the answer must come from the pages of Scripture. The central reference point for the answer to this question comes to us from the Gospel of John. John tells us that the Word (the eternal Logos), who is God and was with God from the beginning, decides to occupy human temporal space as a human person. The story finds its descriptive beauty in the figure of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling (literally, “pitching His tent”)2 among us. God in human flesh (John 1:1-14). The apostle Paul adds to this description by stipulating that “in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9, NRSV).3
The New Testament writers paint an exceptional picture for us. Jesus is a unique incarnation of the eternal Logos. Paul adds in Philippians 2:6-9 that this transformation was willing and purposeful. This very simple description of the Incarnation lies at the foundation of divine purposeful and empowering empathy.
The story of the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:1-11 offers us key lessons that help us understand God’s empathy toward us. Let’s look at three of them.
Temptation One: Hunger
Note that the devil comes to Jesus at the end of His fast, at the moment when He is the hungriest. The devil comes disguised and uses the real feeling of hunger to drive a temptation that is aimed to have Jesus doubt who He is. Forty days before, the Father had spoken clearly and had stated who Jesus was—His Son. The temptation is not just questioning Jesus’ identity, but ultimately the word that God had spoken over Jesus’ life, bestowing upon Him the identity in question. The similarities with the first temptation in Genesis 3 cannot be missed.
What God calls us to must be what determines and shapes our lives; not our emotions or feelings, as true as they can be and feel.
The reality of this being a repeated strategy used against God’s children in all generations is also hard to miss. Hunger is not just referring to the physical pangs of an empty stomach; hunger for love, care, attention, protection, and empowerment are also real. And when we find ourselves sensing this hunger, it’s easy to believe the lie that we are less than what God has declared us to be, and therefore we need to satisfy these hunger pangs in ways that do not really satisfy. All we end up having as evidence of this identity is the morsel we bit from; the result is always more hunger. It’s the hunger of the addicted, always coming back for more, but never finding satisfaction. We note that Jesus responded with the truth that humans don’t live by bread alone “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, NRSV). The response rings true today. What God calls us to must be what determines and shapes our lives; not our emotions or feelings, as true as they may be and feel. When we live our lives on the basis of what God calls us to be, we too can begin to perceive the lies that throw into question the reality of God’s Word over our own lives. We are His children (John 1:12, 13); we are the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). Many other texts declare the Word by which we are to live. Jesus’ example shows us that He truly understands the temptation.
Temptation Two: Pride
This time the identity of the Son is put into question from a different perspective. Since Satan couldn’t create doubt in Jesus’ own identity, perhaps he could instill doubt in God’s provisions, and what it really means to “abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps. 91:1). Jesus’ response, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7, NRSV), discloses an important piece of the puzzle. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, which is a recapitulation of the Exodus story.
This particular remembering is tied to the incidents of Exodus 17:1-7. The children of Israel bemoan a lack of water in the desert and wonder, “Is God with us?” Mind you, this real question (“Is the Lord with us?”), brought on by difficult circumstances, comes at the tail end of manna from heaven, deliverance from the Egyptian army, the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, the 10plagues, and freedom from slavery.
If temptation one is about us doubting the identity that God speaks over us, temptation two is about doubting God’s providence and care for our lives. Wondering if the Lord, our God, is in fact with us (though He’s proved Himself to be with us already) opens us wide to Satan’s whisperings. That’s why when we recognize, receive, and believe the truth of who we are in Him, we can live under the shadow of the Almighty; not in presumption but in secure confidence of who cares for our lives. Nothing can alter that—not losing life; not losing love; not losing a job. The way Jesus responds shows us that He actually knows and understands.
Temptation Three: Shortcut
This third temptation offers the allure of achieving something by ease, though always at a price. Jesus faces a similar temptation at a later moment, this time not in the desert but in a garden. Jesus’ answer at the top of the mountain was a resounding “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ ” (Matt. 4:10, NRSV). This understanding of the “easy way” is deepened when we look at the night when Jesus withstands this temptation, arguably His greatest trial. The Gospels paint a picture of dread and struggle when they describe the scene in Gethsemane—full of real anxiety and fear of what the future held. Jesus clings to the ground, His heart is heavy with the consequences of sins that were ours to bear, but that He bears willingly. He endures the separation that s
in produces. The weight is heavy, so heavy that we picture His hands and fingers clinging to the earth as beads of sweat and blood pour from His face. Jesus wants out. The temptation to leave and choose the “easy” way is ever present in that garden.
And He could have. Yet He remained. He could have given up, but He didn’t. Faced with the real consequence of eternity without us, Jesus plunges through hell for us. “Let it pass, but not my will but yours be done.” He does this alone, as suggested by this text from Isaiah: “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me” (Isa. 63:3, NRSV). His will submits: He voluntarily takes on Himself the death that was ours to bear, and emerges on the other side of this night settled and focused on the cross awaiting Him. He settles in His heart at this moment what the outcome will be on the cross. Whereas in the first garden the first Adam failed, in the second garden the Second Adam succeeded.
The cross demonstrates to the universe that sin has no other intent and result than evil. And since the grave could not hold Jesus, He emerges from the grave with a new starting point for the human race. Through death He is able to destroy death, and by that set us free from the fear and bondage of sin. Not only that, but because of His life, death, resurrection, and the faith He lived by, we are able to look at this “starting point” and understand that we no longer live under the power of sin. Paul clarifies this when he states that through Christ (and by faith) we are dead to sin (Rom. 6:11).
Our Christian walk is not just a wishful gazing at Jesus as some sort of celebrity whom we admire from the safety of our social media platform. No! “He [did] not give aid to angels, but . . . to the seed of Abraham” and “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:16, 18). This reminds us that Jesus, the founder, initiator, finisher, and hero of our faith, not only understands the human plight of suffering and sorrow; He also empowers us to live our lives for a greater good than obtaining a certificate of salvation that allow us to enter heaven. We are enabled to live within, through, and by the person of Christ.
That’s why I am not running toward salvation, I run in salvation; I don’t run toward righteousness, I run in righteousness; I don’t run toward sanctification, I run in sanctification, always growing in Christ. That’s the euangelion, the “good news.” The celebration of the absolute good news proves that God both understands us and empowers us to live above the pressing circumstances of this life by the power of the gospel speaking and moving in us. After all: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). That’s you and me. Through Christ by faith, we live in the new reality that He has created for us, loved by the Father, empathized by the Son, and empowered by the Spirit.
Harold Alomía serves as lead pastor of the College View church in Lincoln, Nebraska.