When was the last time someone who disagreed with you tried to see things from your perspective?
It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? But let’s reverse the question. When was the last time you tried to see things from an opponent’s viewpoint?
Empathy—the ability to understand what someone else is thinking or feeling—is in short supply these days. Let me correct that. Empathy is practically non-existent.
That hasn’t always been the case. In a piece written for NPR, Hannah Rosin said that “in the 70s, empathy was all the rage” in her school. Since the late 60s, researchers have been looking into the level of empathy among college students. The surveys asked students to respond to statements like:
- “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help.”
- “Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”
Researcher Sara Konrath noticed a downward trend—a slide—in empathy.
“Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!”
The view these days is that not showing empathy for the other side is a way of taking a stand. But with that mindset, we have no hope of bringing change to whatever it is we’re taking a stand on. Social media and cable news have fueled this lack of empathy. We’re too busy posting our opinions on Facebook to ever take the time to see why someone might disagree with us.
Empathy doesn’t mean we agree with or endorse the other view; it simply means we try to understand what the person believes—and why he believes it. But we’re afraid that, if we listen to what the other person has to say, others will think we’re “soft” on the subject. A closet supporter of the other side.
This is certainly the case in politics. It’s rare to hear—or participate in—a civil discussion between a Republican and a Democrat. But it’s also the case in theological discussions. And this lack of empathy is found in the church.
Last week, one of my closest friends told me that a couple in his church invited a lesbian couple to visit. The lesbians were interested in attending, and they even wanted to visit the Bible study group my friend leads. Word got out that a lesbian couple might be visiting the group, and some in the group were quick to offer their opinions. As I understand the discussion, it boiled down to this one question: “What in blazes were you thinking inviting lesbians to visit our group?”
My friend asked what I thought. Let me be clear up front. Biblical teaching on homosexuality is clear: it’s wrong. Consequently, same-sex marriage is wrong. But as my friend laid out this scenario, we agreed that, while homosexuality is wrong, we might consider the motives and reasoning of this couple.
- Did this lesbian couple want to come in order to make a point? We’re lesbians. We’re in your church. What are you going to do about it?
- Is this lesbian couple looking into Jesus? Are they looking for something more in this life? Are they intrigued by the Bible or the gospel and want to know more?
Empathy with this couple would not equal an endorsement of their lifestyle. But seeking to understand who they are and what they’re thinking can make a world of difference. Listening to them earns us the right to be heard.
We can bemoan the loss of empathy in the political arena, but I think it is especially tragic to lose empathy in the church. How can we say we love the lost without trying to get to know and understand the other person? Love without a sense of empathy is an abstract; it doesn’t mean anything tangible. That’s why secular culture sees the church as a bunch of hypocritical, judgmental Christians.
We can change that. If we say we love others, let’s put that love into practice by first getting to know the other side. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learning to see life from their vantage point helps us to pray for them. We could use a good dose of empathy—and let it begin with me.
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