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Beyond empathy

A Christian Science perspective: A comfort beyond empathy actually heals.

A friend confided to me recently that she often felt overwhelmed when faced with the suffering of others. Sympathy (concern for another) and empathy (recognizing what another is feeling) are thought to be helpful precursors to the kind of compassionate aid people need. But if our thoughts and feelings don’t move past an appreciation of another’s pain and fear, we may be unable to help in a lasting way and may even begin to feel hopeless ourselves. After we spoke, I found myself thinking of Bible accounts of healing and the way Christ Jesus met cries for help. Confronted with sickness, desperation, grief, and hopelessness of every kind, he demonstrated true sympathy and brought a comfort beyond empathy – a divine comfort that healed and transformed the lives of those he encountered.

Jesus knew everything there was to know about the human condition. But he also understood his and everyone else’s eternal connection to God, divine Love. The comfort Jesus brought to the sick and the poor in spirit did not come from sharing soothing axioms or passing along secondhand advice. He actually healed the individuals of their problems. It was a direct expression of God’s love – infinitely more powerful than the most well-intentioned commiseration. It was Christ, the reflection of God, speaking through everything he did that changed despair to joy, sickness to vitality, sin to integrity. Explaining this divine sympathy, Christian Science Discoverer and Founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote, “God pities our woes with the love of a Father for His child, – not by becoming human, and knowing sin, or naught, but by removing our knowledge of what is not. He could not destroy our woes totally if He possessed any knowledge of them. His sympathy is divine, not human” (“No and Yes” p. 30).

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At one point, when Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem, 10 lepers, “lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed” (Luke 17:12-14). Jesus’ response was not to merely cheer them up in their miserable condition, nor did he simply feel their pain. He brought them the Christ-understanding of their identity as the spiritual image of God. He revealed their inseparability from God’s love and from divine Truth itself, the reality of all being, which made them free from their disease.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” we read: “Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God’s own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick. Thus Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is intact, universal, and that man is pure and holy” (pp. 476, 477).

Confronted with another’s pain, it is tempting to reach for some ready-made comfort. The sight of suffering challenges us to find a solution. But to be of genuine service, we need to dig deeper than merely reacting to the problem. We must find a higher response than passively accepting suffering.

The key, I think, is in the way Christ Jesus “saw God’s own likeness” instead of accepting even daunting outward appearances of hopelessness. This is true compassion and involves taking a stand with the spiritual sense of God and man. Though Jesus often said only a few words to those he helped, it seems clear that his spiritual understanding was powerful and capable of bringing healing and transformation. That understanding is available to all of us, and we find its blessings as soon as we recognize that we are always embraced in the presence of God, Love.

It can be challenging not to get caught in the fear, anger, or sorrow that would appear to be the only appropriate reactions to distress and hardship. But the heart goes out to those in need, and we innately desire to bring real relief.

This kind of meaningful assistance is within the means of each of us. It is possible because divine Love is always the underlying and overarching reality that embraces us all.

We can all reach for and find the Christly understanding of God’s pervasive goodness that is natural to us. Acknowledging God’s loving authority and control, we discover a calm and joy that increasingly fills our life. This glimpse of the kingdom of heaven within shows our unbreakable connection with the ever-present love of God, which provides meaningful and lasting consolation.