Empathy means to “feel into” the situation of another. To have empathy for the plight of another is to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes and feel what the person feels, as if you were going through the same situation as that person would. Truly to have empathy doesn’t mean you experience their situation as you would experience it, but as they would experience it. You try to imagine what it must be like to be that person, with the same history and hindrances, facing the same situation.
Quite often, my ability to feel empathy is hijacked by my lack of sensitivity to the disposition of the other person, so I end up thinking to myself, “Well, if that were me, I’d just do this or this; it’s not a big deal, I could handle it.” Again, this is not true empathy.
Jesus showed true empathy to the large crowd in Mark 8:1-10. Even though there were about four thousand people there, he ‘felt into’ each person individually. “I have compassion on the crowd,” he said. To have compassion means to be moved in one’s inward parts, the bowels, to be specific. Jesus had a belly ache for each person there, his stomach was in knots, just thinking about each person in the crowd.
He stepped into their shoes and experienced their circumstance not as if he were the Son of God, but as if he were one of them. Notice the detail in the text. Jesus knows they had been with him “three days” and he realized they had “nothing to eat.” Then he imagines each person on the long journey home and says, “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.” He even knew how far each person had travelled, “And some of them have come from far away.”
Jesus felt into the plight of each person and was emotionally moved. He had true empathy.
What is your plight right now? What are you facing? What are you lacking? What dangers are ahead of you if something doesn’t happen soon? Friend, Jesus feels into your life and circumstances today, just as much as he did then. Whether you realize it or not, he stands in your shoes each morning and walks with you to face all your problems. His stomach still turns when he sees what you see and feels what you feel.
When he said, “I have compassion on the crowd,” you and I are in that crowd.
But Jesus does more than have empathy, he also takes action. He has empathy and action; he feels into your plight and takes action out of it. Sometimes Jesus takes action directly, but sometimes he uses other people, as in Mark 8. Remember this great truth: Jesus loves to use ‘means.’ He uses other people, objects, or events to minister to us.
In Mark 8:1-10, Jesus used the means of the disciples and the bread and fish they were able to collect. Jesus could have instantly filled the bellies of the four thousand people, but instead, he used the actions of the disciples to gather seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.
How does Jesus act? Now, it’s really important to see the pattern here, because it’s repeated twice in this passage, both with the bread and the fish, for emphasis. Here are the seven steps of Jesus’s action in our lives.
- He uses what we have. Again, God often uses means in order to minister to us. He tends to use what we already have, rather than giving us something completely new. Most likely, the answer to your problem is with you already, but you just don’t know it.
- He adds up our resources so that we can see they are not enough. There were just seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. Part of his action is for us to realize we don’t have what it takes. His action doesn’t happen when we think we have it covered, but when we’re staring at an empty plate.
- He has us sit. He directed the crowd to sit down. For us, this means he humbles us, puts us in a posture of reception, waiting, and patience. Also, sitting is the posture of grace: he serves us as a waiter as we sit and enjoy.
- He takes away what we have and puts it in his own hands. The crowd only had seven loaves of bread and a few fish, but Jesus took these away from the crowd. Often, God will take away what little we have before he acts.
- He blesses or gives thanks for it. We struggle to give thanks for what little we have, but Jesus doesn’t. He gives thanks on our behalf for what we have. He blesses what we have, in case we forget how special the little we have truly is.
- He breaks it. After taking away our meager resources, he breaks them. While his breaking hurts us and we don’t understand what he is doing, it is necessary. Just as a grape must be broken to produce wine, so must our hopes and dreams be crushed. Useful things are broken things.
- He has his disciples set it before us. We depend on other people more than we realize. When we’re broken and hungry and waiting on the Lord, other people will minister to us. God loves to bring us to a desolate place where we have no resources and can no longer depend on our own strength; then he uses other weak and hungry people to care for us. Sometimes we don’t realize how much God is using other people to help us; it’s okay to let it happen. The most important meal others can serve to you is the word of God itself, reminding you of the truth of God’s grace in your life. This is the meal that truly satisfies.
Look at these seven steps, can you see any of them unfolding in your circumstance right now? If you can, then you can see the action of Jesus. Remember, he acts mysteriously and he uses others on his behalf, but he is directing the miracle. His action will never turn out how we normally think it would, because he is always doing something new and gracious. But in the end, his way is always best and always satisfies the most.
There were four thousand in the crowd that day and you were one of them.
- What is empathy? When have you experienced true empathy? When have you given true empathy?
- Go through the seven steps of Jesus’s action. Which do you see at work in your life?
- How has God used other people to care for you? Take one minute and think about all the ways other people have loved you.