The Power of Empathy

I love James Madison University. 

For some of you, this will come as no shock at all. They’re my football team. The university is located in the beautiful Shenandoah valley, which is absolutely amazing. I suppose I’m nostalgic about it, too, because it was where Dana and I spent our first two years of marriage, it was where we made two life-long friends, it was where we built a life for ourselves for the first time. 

I went there over a decade ago to pursue a graduate degree in higher education leadership. That particular degree required a focus in counseling. In fact, the degree had more counseling courses required than it did leadership courses. In the first spring of my time there, I took Counseling Theories and excelled at it. I ate up the textbook, loved everything I read, and fell in love with psychologist and counselor Carl Rogers. 

Counseling Techniques, though, I bombed. I was a miserable failure at that course. By the end of the semester, I’d pulled an A out of the course, but I spent the first several weeks failing miserably. I was a miserable counselor. We would learn about various techniques and then be required to try them out on each other in mock counseling sessions that were recorded. The recordings were then watched during a class session and our peers and the professor would give feedback. Each time mine would come up, I got lambasted. The professor absolutely took me to school. But why? 

The answer to that question is the same as the lesson from our text this morning. In it, we encounter the climax of the story of Esther, a biblical story that reads like a prime-time thriller with elements of a soap opera. Before I read the scripture, let me recount for us what’s happened prior to this moment. 

The story of Esther takes place during the exile, when the Jewish people are living in the Persian empire against their will. King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes, which is how I’ll be referring to him because it’s tremendously easier to say, had dismissed his queen Vashti for insubordination. Word is sent out to the kingdom that the King desires a new queen. Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, encourages her to try out for the role of queen. She does and she gets it. The King not only finds her desirable, he falls in love with her. Thus Esther becomes Queen of Persia. But there’s a catch that will be important later: Mordecai tells Esther to hide her ethnicity and she agrees. Xerxes has no idea he’s chosen a Jew to be his Queen. 

After she becomes queen, Mordecai is sitting at the gates of the Persian capital Susa one day and overhears two of the King’s men conspiring to assassinate him. He alerts the palace and the two men are taken care of. Mordecai is a hero! At the same time, Haman is promoted to the role of vizier; second to the King. He decrees that all who encounter Haman must bow before him. When he passes Mordecai, again sitting at the gates of the palace, Mordecai refuses to bow. 

This enrages Haman. He decides that the Jews in the empire are disloyal and hatches a plot to kill them. He goes to the King and convinces him to sign an order for all Jews across the Persian empire, men, women, and children, to be slaughtered and their possessions looted. The order states a date in the near future for this to occur. 

Mordecai gets wind of the plot and, through a messenger, gets word to Esther. His words, as they discuss the issue, come with the most famous verse in all of this book. Mordecai, trying to convince Esther to take action to save her people, says, “who knows, perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (4:14b) This convinces Esther who launches a plan to get the King to stop the genocide. 

Esther’s plan involves two banquets. The second is where we find ourselves in chapter 7, our scripture for this morning. Hear now the climax of the story and book of Esther:

Scripture

Esther has saved her people! She has tricked Haman into coming to the banquet because he thinks the queen is honoring him and elevating his status. She knew he’d think that, which is why she put the three of them together. She’d actually held a banquet prior to this to convince Haman she was a friend. Then, at this second banquet in our scripture, she springs her trap and Haman falls right in. 

But let’s back up for a second. It’s a biblical story, so we expect that the Jews will be saved and we expect Esther to be the heroine that she absolutely is. It took tremendous courage and guts to do what she did because to approach the King like this, as a woman and a Jew, even though she’s queen, risked her status and even her life. Especially because her ethnicity is now outed: Xerxes now knows he has a Jew for a wife. 

So consider this: why doesn’t Xerxes react in anger toward Esther? She deceived him. He might feel conned, for he married what was considered an inferior ethnicity, one now condemned to death. Why didn’t he hand her over to Haman to be executed along with the rest of the Jews who would soon meet the fate of ethnic cleansing? That’s terrible, but I think we’d also understand if the King was angry with Esther for this deception.

And consider this: why doesn’t Xerxes stand by his edict for that ethnic cleansing? Haman had him convinced that Jews were a threat to the stability of his empire. They were disloyal! They were different! Haman has Xerxes convinced that Persia must be rid of the Jews before they go through with their plan to overthrow the king. Nothing Esther says undoes that fact. Nothing Esther says would abate the king’s fears of rebellion by the Jews. Nothing Esther says would convince him that her people would now be loyal. It’d be understandable, perhaps even more understandable, if the King reacted by keeping the edict in place, stating that ethnic cleansing was the only way he could ensure the stability and longevity of the Persian Empire. 

And yet, Xerxes takes Esther’s side. He could have taken any number of actions, including keeping the edict but exempting Esther from it. But he doesn’t. In his interaction with Esther, he demonstrates what I lacked in my counseling techniques class. He demonstrates an essential relationship skill that might seem weak but is, in fact, incredibly powerful. He shows empathy. 

He empathizes with Esther and the plight of her people. He empathizes with the very difficult position she’s in. He empathizes with the risks she took. His response to her is led by empathy; an empathy born of love.

Empathy is different from sympathy. To be sympathetic is to pity the other person, to feel sorry for the other person. It’s to look at someone else’s pain and say or think, “that stinks!” We might even say that to the person. And then we move on with our lives. 

Empathy, however, is to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. When someone is suffering, we suffer, too. When someone is struggling with something, we struggle, too. When someone is facing danger and fearful, we’re facing that danger with them, experiencing their fear. Empathy is far more powerful because it’s not pity; it is, in fact, trying to understand the world through the eyes of another; to walk a mile in their shoes.

Empathy is, perhaps, the most powerful tool in relationships. In a marriage, if we can understand the world through the eyes of our spouse, we deepen the relationship because then we understand why our spouse gets offended when we say a particular thing, or why she needs lots of compliments, or why he is so hard on himself. Instead of deciding we already understand someone, we approach the other person with an attitude of not understanding, trying to see the world through their eyes, walk a mile in their shoes, to really understand what life is like for them and what makes them tick. 

That was the problem in my counseling techniques class. I heard someone talk about a problem they were facing and decided my job was to solve it. Any of us in this room with any counseling training at all know that is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. We can’t fix other people’s problems. Only they can. We can merely point at potential solutions, but even then, that’s not nearly as powerful at affecting change as deep listening and empathy. 

For so many of us simply need our emotions validate, not our problems solved. When we’re fearful, we need someone to come along side of us, listen to us, hear our fear, and say it’s okay that we’re feeling that way. When we’re struggling or suffering, we need the same thing. That’s because when we feel that we’ve been empathized with, meaning that we feel like someone has done the work to understand the world as we see it through our eyes, we feel deeply validated, deeply understood, deeply loved. 

And that’s what Xerxes does for Queen Esther. His love for her carries the day. That love enables him to empathize with her and her people, taking the righteous action to stop the genocide, save her and her people, forgive her for the deception, and remove Haman from his kingdom. 

His love for her isn’t the mushy feelings like when we fall in love. Love is commitment, it’s covenant. The basis of God’s love for the Jews is covenant: a commitment to always be their God and for them to always be God’s people, no matter how much hurt they might do to the heart of God, no matter how much God might dislike them at times, God remains committed to them. 

And in fact, God wants to experience the world as they do. We hear this in the Psalms. Jesus is the prime example of what it means to practice empathy. He found out what life is like for us humans, suffering, struggling, just as we do. In his interactions with people rejected by society or struggling under a weight of sickness or demons or death, he empathized with them. When encountering Lazarus’s death, Jesus wept; he felt the grief that comes from the loss of someone we love. 

That empathy is an expression of God’s love for us; God’s deep love for us. We, as Hebrews says, do not have a savior who cannot relate to our experience. Hebrews 4 uses the word sympathy but the root there means empathy: to walk a mile in our shoes, know what life is like for us, hear us when we call during suffering and struggle, and bear our pains. Jesus shows us what empathy is and, in doing so, how much God loves us.

God does not pity us. God empathizes with us in all our suffering and struggles. That’s tremendously good news for us. God then calls upon us to do the same for others: in all our relationships, to empathize with struggle and suffering, to walk a mile in their shoes, to see the world through their eyes. At least, to do so the best that we can.

So when someone is suffering, lend a listening ear and be with them. When someone is struggling, grant them the gift of your presence. When there’s hurt or pain in relationships, try to see the world through their eyes. When there’s loss and grief, walk a mile in their shoes. 

And when we find ourselves struggling, suffering, bearing hurt and pain, loss or grief, go to God in prayer, knowing that Jesus empathizes with us. Experience the power of God’s love empathizing with your suffering.

We show love in our relationships by practicing empathy. Xerxes demonstrates that kind of love to Esther. From all the people, Xerxes chose Esther. Among all the populations of the world, God chose the Jews. And through Jesus Christ, God chose you, and me, and us all.

Empathy deepens our relationships in love. It grows us together because it teaches us to understand the world through the eyes of another. That’s the power of love. That’s the power of empathy. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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