As I was listening to an illumining talk by reformed theologian Richard Mouw, I had one of those moments where I thought I knew the ‘very cool’ point he was about to make, which he then didn’t make, which then led me to think, very cool point John… you should write that down.
Mouw was talking about a woman who angrily confronted him after a sermon he’d given, telling him that he was wrong in saying that Jesus could empathize with all of our sufferings; that he knows how we feel. ‘I’ve just had a terrible week… so much pain in relation to my daughter… Jesus never had a daughter, so how can he relate?’ Mouw responded by noting that while Jesus indeed didn’t have a daughter, he did know what it was like to be abused, spit upon, taken advantage of, and betrayed.
And then Mouw didn’t say what I thought he was going to say… “But I think Jesus’ ability to empathize moves beyond these broad categories of suffering as well. Yes, he experienced pain directly, but perhaps he also experienced it empathetically; with a perfection that made the pain of others fully his. Maybe Jesus, more than any human being, because he loved more than any other human being, and because he was God-with-us, empathized so deeply, was so much for the abused parent he encountered, the blind man sitting at the side of the road, the childless mother’s emptiness, the rejected husband’s loss, the alienated, the depressed, the fearful, the widowed, the lost, the least and the last, that he really did fully experience their pain.”
We’ve all had moments where we’ve empathetically suffered with others to the point where it really did feel like we’d suffered the loss ourselves. Thinking back to the times when this has happened in me, I recall those moments feeling incredibly Christ-like. What if Jesus empathized like this all the time? Then surely he does know more about suffering than ‘just’ those pains which he directly endured himself.
I suppose Mouw’s angry woman could respond to this by saying that Jesus didn’t meet everyone who’s ever suffered. To which I imagine Mouw then responding, “But surely Jesus has been perfectly empathizing with everyone who’s populated his creation from the beginning of time”.
image – Rembrandt, Head of Christ (partial)