While the church is the body of Christ, the first place where faith in Jesus is practiced is within the family. Some Christian traditions call the family the “domestic church” because it is the first place where children learn of the unconditional love of our Heavenly Father, expressed as the love that a child’s parents share with the child – that reflection of the divine love of the Trinity I discussed in chapter two.
The family, then, is the best place to develop Christian empathy. The first example of God’s love as felt by a child ought to be in the unconditional love that a mother and father express to the child. In my work, I’ve found that some parents find it difficult to demonstrate unconditional love for their children because they did not learn it in a tangible way from their own parents.
In our efforts to reach out to the most wounded people in our culture, how can we expect to show them unconditional love without having experienced it ourselves? I’d like to recommend that we do three things to develop empathy:
- Remember that we are sinners, saved by grace and purchased at a great price by the blood of the Redeemer;
- Demonstrate to our own children and family members that no matter what they do, we will love and accept them (unconditionally) as they are, not as we want them to be; and
- Establish and enforce healthy boundaries that respect the legitimate emotional needs of others, especially our own children.
We are sinners, saved by grace bound to give unconditional love
The first way to develop Christian empathy seems to be easier for most of us, but we need to be careful not to become the judgmental “ex-sinner” that is, fundamentally, a hypocrite. The ex-sinner has forgotten his struggle with “I do not do what my will intends” and fails to recognize how difficult it was to stop his sins and, instead, says things like, “I quit sinning, why can’t you?”
Empathy is typically defined as feeling with another person, but Christian empathy presses this and emotionally identifies with the woundedness of the sinner. We don’t see Marty as “the gay guy,” we see Martin, beloved of God who, in his brokenness is seeking consolation in ways that are not healthy.
When we show human empathy, we are able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, but real Christian empathy is subject to revelation, and we strive to honor their emotions and their struggle with whatever they are dealing with in order to lead them to something better. The former is based on our capacity to choose the right way of treating someone, while the latter relies on our Biblical mandate, guided by the Holy Spirit manifesting grace in our lives.
This is the fundamental problem with Andrew Marin’s book Love is an Orientation, mentioned in chapter nine. While he demonstrates great human empathy, as a Christian reading an account of the work he is engaged in with members of the LGBT community, I’m frequently struck by the question: “Where’s he going with this?”
In other words, if loving is only for the sake of loving (an emotion or way of feeling), then it’s quite temporal. But if loving is pointing someone towards the ultimate Source, our Savior, then it’s everlasting and worth pursuing to the nth degree. This is what distinguishes the “good person” who shows human empathy from the believer practicing Christian empathy.
I tend to agree that for many broken people in the world today, the church is a place of shame. And while we hear about radical conversions and the great things that people who “used to be sinners” are doing today as Christians, what have we done as a church to reach out to the sinners in our midst who are in the struggle? We’re all familiar with the Biblical definition of the church as the “Body of Christ,” but I like the Orthodox Christian church’s name for the church: “A hospital for sinners.”
Demonstrate unconditional love
I cannot emphasize enough my second recommendation in showing Christian empathy: Demonstrate unconditional love. Our entire culture of success tells us in so many ways that unless we’re successful or that we drink the right soda or go to the right school, we’re not good enough. We need to really derive our worth and wholeness from the reality of our being sons and daughters of the one and living God!
When someone is struggling with sin, it’s very important that we honor the fact that we feel with him that it’s a struggle. But we need to continue to show affection and attention to such people, especially when they reach out to us in their hour of need. The old line, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a rather sterile admonition when hurting people are, frequently, just looking for a shoulder to cry on in their misery.
In showing unconditional love, we need to reflect that Jesus did not harshly judge people; he invited them to confess their own sins. The woman caught in adultery was merely told to go and sin no more. Jesus didn’t harass her when he loved her but hated her sin.
I cringe at self-righteous Christians who sincerely believe they are engaged in ministry to the sexually broken, but do so while projecting their false selves and unresolved issues onto those they profess to be helping. A Christian practicing unconditional love will never condemn a brother or sister who is lost for the sake of being right; instead, he will form a relationship with those who wish receive his invitation for discipleship while steadfastly praying (and loving) those who reject his witness.
Establishing healthy boundaries that respect legitimate needs
My final recommendation in showing Christian empathy is that we establish healthy boundaries while respecting legitimate needs. This seems to be the hardest thing to do, as most of us have few models of healthy boundaries provided in our families of origin.
In my clinical work with men and women struggling with their sexual identity (some of whom are LGBT-identified), some of their biggest wounds occur not in the gay community, but in the church. They often did not get the love they needed from parents and families in their youth, and then struggle for years to find happiness in the gay community. Seeking help and healing, the church often seems like a safe place for them to find respite after years of failed or broken relationships in the LGBT community.
When these wounded men and women are welcomed into our congregation, we often say to them: “You are now a part of our family.” But what happens when Sunday service is concluded or Wednesday night Bible study is over? Too often, our Christian empathy is confined to the walls within the church. These brave souls seeking to leave a life of sexual sin have real, practical, and legitimate needs. Yet, the church often tries to solve this problem with Sunday morning discipleship programs and podcast sound bites.
The LGBT community, for the most part, is fiercely loyal and accepting of their own. They make little judgment of each other and respect the diversity within their ranks. The church, however, has all sorts of pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a “Christian.” When it comes to conduct and self-expression, institutional Christianity usually thinks inside the box. As a result, we tend to push our stereotypical fellowship programs onto these folks, such as the men’s basketball league or the women’s craft night.
Ponder this for moment: If a man has spent 15-20 years in the gay community and now finds himself in the church searching for healing, what natural place does he have among us? Most of his peers are married men with grade school children. What community does he belong to? While many addiction recovery ministries now exist within the church, I would suggest that the vast majority of these ministries are inadequate and ill equipped to handle the emotional and physical needs of these sensitive souls (think of Jose in chapter 6).
What about the lesbian-identified mother with two children seeking Christian fellowship? How do we care for her practical and spiritual needs when we turn her preschooler away from our Vacation Bible School summer program because of our fear of what the other children might think when her child announces: “I have two mommy’s!” Do we insist this woman seek therapy for her sexuality before we welcome her family into the Body of Christ?
I personally know a former lesbian who now runs a church ministry for those seeking sexual and relational healing. She did not experience restoration because of some well-meaning theologian who pointed out (to her and her partner) that her lifestyle was incompatible with scripture. The women simply welcomed the couple into their church Bible study, and for years, formed a relationship with them. As the couple matured in their Christian walk, they were both convicted by the Holy Spirit of their life choices, and after years of being together, separated. Many of their legitimate needs for relationship were fulfilled in the church while Christ worked to change their hearts.
While we are all responsible for establishing appropriate boundaries with each other, some of us may need to actually open our homes in order to minister effectively to this community, and that does not mean we dictate to the LGBT-identified person how to live.
What I am suggesting is that we, collectively as the Body of Christ, need to make ourselves available to those in need of love and relationship. It might be uncomfortable or unconventional to welcome the gay man or lesbian woman to sit down with us at our dinner table and share a meal with our family. Yet, that’s exactly the example Jesus gave us when he ate with the tax collectors and sinners (see Mark 2: 13-17).
How we become Christ to our neighbor: Christian empathy in action is love
If my fundamental thesis, that our sins are expressions of wounds that have not been healed, and if we believe that Christ dispenses his gifts through others, then our call to become the means by which Christ heals in the world is pretty clear. What the Christian sexual ethic sees as a failure to attend to the laws of our faith becomes our ability to see how each person is searching for meaning and wholeness. Our response to the “sinner” needs to be an actual and tangible manifestation of God’s love to everyone, whether repentant or unrepentant.
Many wounded people, especially people who have sexual identity issues, have a difficult time experiencing God as a loving Father. Their own experience with their angry or detached fathers leads them to question how Jesus could even attempt to use the love a father has for his children as an example of God’s own love for His creation.
Christian empathy in action means that we demonstrate real concern to those in need, and we render no judgment against them. Since there is no condemnation in Christ, our effort should be to lead people to Christ. But our experience should indicate to all of us that people don’t really want to change and will not accept random “corrections” of their behavior.
I can’t tell you how many of my LGBT-identified friends have been terribly wounded by some well-meaning “Christian” who thought it was his mission to point out the sexual sin of my friend. The missing principle of that Christian’s behavior is what reconciles sin and lawfulness, ethic and ethos; and that is love in action, our Christian empathy.
People will not enter a meaningful dialogue about what’s good for them unless they sense, feel, and appreciate the fact that we, as a church, are really, honestly, and sincerely concerned about them. It’s the old adage: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The reality is that there are various manifestations of woundedness in our world today, and the modern doctrine of tolerance and “liberation” from moral constraints of the past has done nothing to help men and women achieve true freedom in Christ.
Our role, then, must be to encounter each wounded person where he or she is and bring them into a loving dialogue about how their lives can be really made whole by their entire commitment to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This is an excerpt from chapter 10 of The Meaning of Sex: A New Christian Ethos. Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Families. To purchase a copy, click here.
Posted on Thu, March 15, 2018
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