Reflections on the story in John 11 (read previous post for context)
Simply – He cried because his friends were crying. He became fully present with their suffering. He was not thinking of their future (what he was going to do for them in the next few minutes) nor was he thinking of his own future which was soon to take a dark painful course.
Nor did He feel a need to defend his actions when Mary, the sisteraccused of him of insensitivity or procrastination. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs. 11). Absent in Jesus was any need to defend his actions even in the midst of laments that if he had come sooner the dire situation would be different. He stayed present. His friends were grieving and that sadness affected Jesus with empathetic sadness.
Empathy – We may be born with the capacity to empathize but nurture plays a profound role. We must be taught and modeled the experience of feeling another person’s pain. When people lack empathy we, in the mental health profession, assume, a childhood of abuse and/or neglect or a disorder. We assume that they were never the recipients of empathy nor had it modeled for them by the significant relationships in their lives. We recognize that something is off.
A story of parenting small children: I was at a playground with my grandsons observing small children and their parents. One man’s daughter fell and cried loudly. The father gently examined her and lovingly reassured her of his presence and his sympathy for her pain. Another parent noticed the situation and looked on. The child with her tried to reengage her in what he was doing – building a sand castle. I heard the following: “I will look at what you are doing in a moment but right now I feel sad about that little girl who got hurt so I want to look at her. Let’s look at her together for a few seconds… (Pause) She seems comforted; so now show me what you were doing.”
If that intentional modeling continues to be that mother’s practice, the child will catch it and develop capacity for empathy.
But what about those who have been deprived of empathy at vulnerable stages of development? There is hope. God’s gift of community – godly loving spaces for transformation interfacing with malleable brains is one such place of hope. Brains can be rewired over time through strong emotional connections to develop empathy. The church with all its warts and imperfections is still the functional body of Christ. It provides opportunities for loving interactions with others that include listening with empathy to people’s messed up stories. According to Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, it is within this context that people who have been formerly deprived of loving attachments begin to sense what an attachment to God feels like thereby understanding God’s grace for them and for others.
Andy (a man in his early 40’s) was a child that had to raise himself. Without going into detail, anybody hearing his story would label his childhood as harsh and neglectful. Attachments to stable caregivers were absent; normally the harbinger of a distrustful adult. However, there were times when he took advantage of caring interactions. He described living for a brief time in a neighborhood where buses destined for Vacation Bible School and church services would pick up children who wanted to go. He was one of them. There was a kind neighbor who noticed his loneliness and neglect. Andy began to sense there was a God who loved. “I would hear stories in church and something exploded in me about God and it was beautiful.” However later, Andy would go down a path as a teenager and young adult that would lead to drug addiction and a stint in jail.
Andy told me, “When released from jail, I did not know what to do with my life. Eventually, I took a woman’s advice and enrolled in a Christian program called ‘Teen Challenge’ (a ministry dedicated to the transformation of young people with substance abuse.) Through their accountability and structured program of prayer, chapel, work, prayer, chapel, prayer, fellowship, counseling, I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about God.”
Andy attended a bible college for a period and did mission work in Asia. Today he serves others through an urban ministry. A man full of empathy and warmth, Andy humbly says, “Sometimes being a Christian is the best thing, sometimes it is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing for me.”
Jesus cried. Of course he did. This powerful empathic being carried empathy where no man or woman has ever taken it – to a cross of suffering for us. Many before and after him have spoken “truth to power”; but He and only He spoke “God’s power into God’s Love.”
Post script: Tears are filled with the presence of stress chemicals and hormones.
Post script: Tears are a functional way of getting cortisol and other stress hormones from inside us to outside us. Have you ever wondered why you have felt slightly better after having a good cry? God blesses tears on this side of heaven but there will come a time when he will wipe every one of them away. Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”