May 2, 2020

​Sanctification as Empathy

Only as we accept ourselves can we accept others.

Shawn Brace

I’ve recently started appreciating one of Scripture’s most important stories in a new light. It is a well-known story, but perhaps there is more depth to it than generally understood.

Does Jesus Care—About Jesus?

After celebrating the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus finds Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He has often spent long hours in prayer. This time, however, things are different. He is deeply troubled and noticeably distressed, even mentioning to His disciples that His “soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38).

Then as He agonizingly stumbles off to His special place of prayer, He utters this astounding request to His three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John: “Stay here,” He says to them, “and watch with Me” (verse 38). Unfortunately, as we well know, Jesus returns a little later, and two subsequent times, to discover that the three aren’t equal to the task. Instead of finding them alert and fully available to “watch” with Him, He finds them sleeping.

What Jesus basically craves at this moment, when the weight of the whole universe is bearing down upon Him with all its crushing fury, is emotional support. He is looking for an impromptu support group. He is looking for emotional availability.

Ellen White says as much in her seminal exposition of His Gethsemane experience in The Desire of Ages. “The human heart longs for sympathy in suffering,” she writes. “This longing Christ felt to the very depths of His being. In the supreme agony of His soul He came to His disciples with a yearning desire to hear some words of comfort from those whom He had so often blessed and comforted, and shielded in sorrow and distress. The One who had always had words of sympathy for them was now suffering superhuman agony, and He longed to know that they were praying for Him and for themselves.”1

This, to me, is one of the most staggering and mind-blowing subjects the human mind could ever contemplate, a truth whose depth seems impossible to fathom. Of greatest relevance for present discussion is the fact that we find in the experience of Christ with His disciples the idea that emotional availability—sympathy and empathy—are the highest height to which human beings can attain, the means of supporting Jesus at this most critical stage of His redemption effort.

Just at this point Jesus cares profoundly about feelings. His own emotions were transparently displayed. So much does sympathy matter to Him that at the peak of His anguished struggle for my soul, what He longs for “to the very depths of His being” is someone to lean on; someone who can offer Him “some words of comfort,” some caring action that will tide Him across the abyss of hell He must negotiate. Peter’s prayer, as opposed to his panic, was the help his Master needed most in His time of “superhuman agony.” The disciples’ spiritual lack here is the same as their failure of sympathy: more or less sympathy meant equivalently more or less support for their Lord. Based on this story and the rest of Scripture’s testimony, I dare to propose that sanctification is the process by which we become more and more emotionally safe and available for others.

How Adventist Is That?

Admittedly, this may not land well in the traditional Adventist ear. Adventists are used to defining sanctification in strictly pietistic terms, often devoid of relational and social context. Many tend to focus on outward behaviors that are easily quantified and controlled. Sanctification, in this understanding, is primarily about personal piety—about improving one’s diet, dressing modestly, and consuming less entertainment. All this is very rarely if ever connected to any higher relational end.

There are others, of course, who focus more on social realities when it comes to sanctification and Christian growth. For them, being a good and sanctified Christian means pursuing works of justice—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, fighting for the oppressed.

There is no doubt that growing in Christlikeness largely includes these very important personal and social elements. But what seems so often overlooked or forgotten is the critically important reality that, at the end of the day, what people both want and need most is to love and be loved; to be understood, accepted, and valued.

This is, after all, how Scripture—and specifically Jesus—distills the meaning of the law into its most basic form. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” He declared to the lawyer who asked Him what the greatest commandment was. “And . . . ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). Loving God with our whole person—heart, soul, and mind—means developing not only our physical and intellectual faculties, but growing in emotional and relational health as well. That emotional growth enables us to love God and others better and better all the time.

Sanctification is learning to love others well.

Similarly, Paul, after echoing Jesus’ words, sums up the whole law by saying that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). No wonder then, that as Paul elsewhere reflects on the “fruit of the Spirit”—on what it looks like to have the Spirit indwelling and shining through us—he focuses chiefly on relational dynamics. “The fruit of the Spirit,” he writes to the believers in Galatia, “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). He is speaking of nothing other than Christlikeness and sanctification.

Where This Takes Us

What all this seems to establish is that growth in sanctification is primarily a relational exercise. At the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be shaped into Christlikeness is the ability to relate to and sympathize with the thoughts and feelings of others. Obedience to God’s law is not the pursuit of arbitrary expressions of piety. It is, if nothing else, the pursuit of greater degrees of empathy—of making ourselves emotionally safe and available for others.

In short, sanctification is learning to love others well.

Many people do acknowledge that love is the chief focus of Christian obedience and growth. But how much does “loving others well” have to do with emotional safety and availability? There is, after all, a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces,” about vulnerability and authenticity; but where has it gotten us? Again, we can understand love as action, as providing for others’ physical needs. But love as making ourselves emotionally available for others?

By way of answer, a growing body of evidence now suggests that our emotional health is as important as any other aspect of our existence as humans. We are, it seems, in the midst of an emotional revolution with multiple new discoveries about the significance of our emotional life and its overall impact on our health and human experience.

A longitudinal study at Harvard University begun in 1938 and following the lives of 268 sophomores has reported staggering discoveries 80 years later. Researchers found that much as any other factor, satisfying relationships were critical to health and longevity: “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Robert Waldinger, who directed the study. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”2

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, another researcher on the team, concluded: “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment.” That was then. We know now that
“the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

For reasons like this, and more, researcher Brené Brown has concluded that “we are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging . . . is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”3 Furthermore, the key to relationships, as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk articulates, is safe connections. “Being able to feel safe with other people,” he writes, “is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives,” adding that “social support is a biological necessity.”4

This will grab every genuine Christian’s attention, especially Adventists, who have historically insisted that the “health message” is part of what it means to grow in sanctification. For what more important part of the health message is there than to experience mental, emotional, and relational health—the very core of what it means to be humans created in the image of God?

Honesty, the Prophets, and Heaven

I was delighted to encounter this very idea in a book written long before the “emotional revolution” began. In Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, Ellen White lays out this same vision for Christian growth and sanctification, framing the pursuit in empathic terms: “In your association with others, put yourself in their place. Enter into their feelings, their difficulties, their disappointments, their joys, and their sorrows. Identify yourself with them, and then do to them as, were you to exchange places with them, you would wish them to deal with you.”5 She labels this “the true rule of honesty”; “another expression of the law”; “the substance of the teaching of the prophets.” She states in sum, “It is a principle of heaven, and will be developed in all who are fitted for its holy companionship.”6

She later adds this categorical statement: “No man who has the true ideal of what constitutes a perfect character will fail to manifest the sympathy and tenderness of Christ. The influence of grace is to soften the heart, to refine and purify the feelings, giving a heaven-born delicacy and sense of propriety.”7

This is dynamite! Showing sympathy, being emotionally safe and available for others, is the very “substance of the teaching of the prophets.” Those who are becoming more obedient to Christ and experiencing greater degrees of sanctification, being fitted for heaven, will display these critically important fruits.

What this all means—being an emotionally safe and available person—is that as the gospel penetrates our hearts and we recognize that our security comes in Jesus, it becomes safe for us to process our own stories of shame and pain, and we thus become safer people for others to share their stories with. When they come to us with their brokenness, temptations, pain, guilt, and shame, we respond not with condemnation, ridicule, sarcasm, or condescension, but with love, acceptance, and empathy. They know that we will not run away from them but that they may run to us. They know they belong—which is the context for the best in spiritual growth.

We will thus find ourselves doing what the apostle Paul encourages us to do—living out a true life of emotional safety and availability, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

Such a sanctified life is a powerful and attractive witness to the gospel.

  1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), pp. 687, 688.
  2. Thanks to Heather Thompson Day for directing me to this study.
  3. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 68.
  4. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), pp. 81, 169.
  5. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 134.
  6. Ibid., pp. 134, 135.
  7. Ibid., p. 135.

Shawn Brace, pastor and author who serves in Bangor, Maine.