The Empathetic God

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”


5 Responses to “The Empathetic God”

  1.   Gary Kenley Says:

    Amen, John Mark! Great Christmas message! Praise God for his willingness to take on flesh and empathize with us!

  2.   kim Says:

    I found this interesting but it leaves me with one question: If the Holy Spirit is indwelling, would God not be able to empathize with humanity in this manner? The Holy Spirit is our Helper, Comforter? I agree with you wrote but am inclined to think that Jesus walked among men to give us a physical touch of God. Stars, animals, earth …praise Him without question. Mankind asks repeatedly for signs, question why, and continually sin. The law offered a temporary solution but not a true connection to a Creator. I know I’m no scholar and way in over my head. I guess I haven’t reached a point of maturity where I see Jesus’ purpose as one of empathy. Thanks for your article and point of view concerning incarnation.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Certainly the Holy Spirit groans with us and knows us (cf. Romans 8:26-27), but the Spirit is not empathetic in terms of the Spirit’s own experience. The Spirit knows our experience, but the Spirit has never experienced the human condition within the Spirit’s own self. The Spirit has never been tempted, or been hungry, or faced death. However, through the union of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the divine community shares their experiences, and consequently the Spirit knows what the Son knows. Full empathy only comes through the incarnation, and only the Son was incarnate.

      Also, there is no question that as incarnate and connected to creation that we are able to see God enfleshed. He could be touched and seen (1 John 1:1-4). But this is only one aspect of the incarnate; there is much more to the mystery, including empathy.

      Jesus, as our high priest and fellow-human, has experienced our weaknesses and has taken them on as part of the incarnation. He became flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:16-18).

  3.   Kim Says:

    Thank you JM. Hebrews 4:15-16 I never consciously thought of the incarnation as an empathetic act. Thank you for the clarification concerning the Spirit and Rom. 8. Thanks for the reminder that through Jesus, God understands ALL that we face and offers grace and help in our weakest moments. Grace precedes peace. Grateful for a God who empathizes with me. Powerful, positive thoughts! Blessings to you my friend!

  4.   George Mearns Says:

    John Mark, this is one of the most thoughtful, thought provoking articles I have read in a long, long time. This could be applied as a communion mediation. I also thought about the resurrection that one day we will experience with Jesus, the full empathy of God and humanity. Thank you.

Leave a Reply