Empowered for Empathy

I have written before about the Compassion of Christ, but wanted to expand on those thoughts somewhat, especially in connection with the way in which prayer empowers us for ministry and service to others.

I want to share with you some thoughts from what has become a favorite part of Scripture for me. It is in Matthew 14, and there are two different stories, but I think we can learn something important from the way in which Matthew connects the two stories.

The first story occurs at the beginning of Matthew 14, with the narration of the death of John the Baptist. John has been imprisoned for speaking out against the unlawful marriage of King Herod, and now, at the request of Herod’s daughter, is beheaded. After that story, we have Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus, filled with compassion for a hungry crowd, miraculously multiplies five loaves and two fish into a feast that is more than enough to fill all the people.

Matthew connects these two stories in an interesting way.

After John is killed, Matthew tells us that John’s disciples take and bury his body, and then go and tell Jesus what has happened.

The Bible doesn’t tell us too much about the specific interactions between John the Baptist and Jesus, but we know that their ministries and lives were closely connected. In addition to the fact that they were relatives, we know that John baptized Jesus, and that Jesus later had very complimentary things to say about him, proclaiming in Matthew 11.11, “among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!”

It shouldn’t really surprise us then, that “…when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself.” (Matthew 14.13)

Jesus was God’s Son, but He was human as well, and while I acknowledge that theologically and intellectually, sometimes I forget that He felt the same feelings that I do. When Jesus heard that John had been killed, He must have been terribly upset—after all, John was likely a close friend of His and was possibly the one person on earth who somewhat understood Who Jesus was and why He had come. Jesus was upset, and He wanted to be alone.

But by now, Jesus was popular, and the people wouldn’t let Him be alone. When they figured out where He went, they followed on foot. Jesus leaves His boat and comes ashore, and then comes Matthew 14.14, which, in the context we’ve just described, is amazing to me:

“When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.”

It seems like at the sight of the people, Jesus immediately forgets His own sorrows and sees only the troubles of those around Him. He feels compassion for the multitudes, and subordinates His own needs to the needs of the people. He heals their sick, and goes on to satisfy their hunger by miraculously multiplying five loaves and two fish.

As a minister, this is kind of an amazing story to me. Because there are times in my life when I am overwhelmed with grief, or stress, or distractions, and it is so hard to summon the energy, the focus, and the compassion to empathize with others.

How is it that Jesus was able to do so?

I would submit that it goes back to Matthew 14.13: “…when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself.”

From that verse, I am going to make an inference (though based on the life and practices of Jesus I think it is a very plausible inference) that when Jesus went to be by Himself, He really went to be with His Father in prayer. And that time spent with the Father in prayer helped Him to be immediately sensitive to the needs of those around Him. Through prayer He became empowered for empathy.

It is difficult to enter the presence of the Father in prayer and to be unchanged by the encounter:

  • Prayer reorients us to God’s mission. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to help the hurting, and time spent with the Father would have reminded Him of that.
  • Prayer helps us to put the trivial things of life into perspective. How many of the things that occupy our mind and distract us are truly important?
  • Prayer helps us to draw near to the heart of God, and thus, it empowers us to empathize with the plight of those around us.

When you find yourself so overwhelmed in your life that you find it difficult to empathize with others who need you, let me humbly suggest that you, like Jesus, spend time with the Father in prayer. Become empowered for empathy.

Luke Dockery serves as the Associate Minister for the Farmington Church of Christ in Northwest Arkansas and is also a student at Harding School of Theology, where he is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. Luke loves teenagers and is devoted to helping them come to deep and mature faith in Jesus Christ. He and his wife, Caroline, have been married since 2006, and they have two young children, Kinsley and Seth. In his free time, Luke enjoys spending time with his family, reading, playing ultimate frisbee, and cheering for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

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