Eight years ago, my younger brother, Timothy D. Kim, was murdered. Tim and I didn’t always get along or agree on everything; we were very different. But Tim had so many good qualities. We shared lots of laughs and love. My heart grieves whenever I hear that siblings are no longer on speaking terms.
Even within nuclear families, we are divided over every topic under the sun—politics, science, immigration, gender, race, climate—to the point where we no longer speak to each other. Is any disagreement important enough to “cut off” our flesh and blood? Similarly, can we dismiss friends so easily on account of disagreements, as is the trend today? Aren’t treasured relationships with our family members and friends worth fighting for?
Over the past year, I’ve begun to see a Christian psychologist and psychiatrist about longstanding traumas and related mental health concerns.
One afternoon, my psychologist and I were bemoaning today’s society. He observed something so simple yet notoriously difficult for people to embrace: “God never intended for us to agree on everything. A basic human ethic is that people can have different opinions.”
People will disagree and are expected to disagree with each other. Why, then, is it so difficult to overlook differing opinions and remain civil toward one another? On nonessential issues, why can’t we disagree and still be friendly? Why are we so fearful of “the other”?
Why do we so nonchalantly dismiss or end relationships within the family of God—whose spiritual blood we share? Whether the debate is over women in pastoral leadership, Christian nationalism, or racism, vitriolic conflicts lead to relational malaise and demise within the church.
Satan’s primary mission is to divide people from each other and from God, whether by isolating us during COVID-19 or by splintering us into factions through social media.
The Accuser takes ordinary disagreements in life and raises them to toxic proportions. And whenever we stoke the flames of anger and antagonism, we are advancing Satan’s plan to divide and conquer Christians rather than sowing peace and loving others well.
In the foreword to Helen Riess’s The Empathy Effect: 7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, actor Alan Alda asks,
What allows us to connect to others? What helps us to build things together? To collaborate unselfishly? What is this powerful force that can push us over into our best selves? … How can we get hold of that very fundamental thing that helps us thrive?
Literally translated from the Greek for “in” (em) and “feeling” (pathy), empathy involves “the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of another person,” according to Oxford’s Concise Medical Dictionary. Empathy helps us feel seen and be known.
Of course, empathy is not an easy endeavor. Biblically speaking, it’s the extension of putting into practice Paul’s relational ethic:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil. 2:3–4)
Three practices can help us engage in empathy, in order that we might look more like Christ than the culture.
First, empathy requires laying down our idols. “You shall have no other gods before me” is the first commandment (Ex. 20:3). If something, someone, or some ideology is so significant to us that we feel we must “cancel” or terminate interaction with another person, then we might be committing idolatry. Nothing is more important than God and what God desires. And God wants us to love others, even when we disagree.
What are the ideologies, identities, or practices that cause us to fight and quarrel with others? “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” James 4:1 suggests.
To empathize with another, I must be willing to acknowledge that the elements that divide us may be due to my idolatry. Am I willing to listen to another’s views or experiences and suspend any interjections? Am I willing to tear down my idols for the unity of the church and God’s people and to maintain fellowship? Will I confess these idols regularly to the Lord and to others? Will I eradicate them from my life? Idols that destroy relationships need to be acknowledged and put to rest.
Second, empathy requires listening to others, whether we deem them to be right or not. Too many of us value rightness over relationships.
Several years ago, I watched in horror as a pastor and one of his congregants battled publicly on social media over the issue of baptism. Rather than prioritizing the relationship, the pastor berated the church member and called her a heretic for disagreeing with him. This unfiltered and heartbreaking exchange was on display for the world to see. I suspect the church member left the congregation, but I pray she didn’t leave the faith.
Nobody wants to be wrong and few of us enjoy being challenged. But we can show kindness even when we think we’re right, because our calling as Christians is to be agents of grace. First Peter says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (4:10). We can inventory our friendships over the past two or three years and ask ourselves, Have I lost friends on account of “being right”? Will I choose relationships over rightness going forward?
Third, empathy needs multiple perspectives. Like most people, I enjoy reading books, journal articles, and reviews where I’m essentially told I’m right. It’s comforting to read authors who champion our claims. But as my colleague Scott M. Gibson has pointed out to me, the more we read the same authors, the same publishing houses, the same journals and magazines, the same denominational pamphlets, and the same news outlets, our thought universe shrinks, fortifies, and becomes hermetically sealed.
Can we try to read one whole book this year from an author in another camp or with a totally different perspective? It may make us mad. We may disagree. We may absolutely hate the book. But could we try to jot down several commendable insights or “pros” of the book?
If we read only our theological heroes, Christian writers, and beloved novelists, it truncates our appreciation for and ability to see the world from another’s experiences. Is it possible that they’re saying something we haven’t considered, noticed, or experienced ourselves? Reading within a positive feedback loop arrests the ability to think for ourselves. Empathy emerges when we read and digest opposite perspectives, even when it may feel infuriating.
I think Alan Alda is right that empathy is the much-needed “secret sauce” that eludes our cultural moment. We can and should pursue empathy with intentionality and prayer. That doesn’t mean we become anxious doormats. Rather, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).
At the end of our lives, I pray we won’t look back on these polarized days and wonder, Should I have cared more about putting people in their place or about the very people for whom Jesus died?
So, Lord, please give us a spirit of empathy. May it start with me. May it start with us “little Christs.” It’s the very thing the world needs just about now.
Matthew D. Kim is professor of practical theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Theological Seminary (Baylor University) as well as author of the forthcoming book Becoming a Friendlier Church (Lexham Press, 2024). Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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