Love is an intense, intimate feeling of a deep, emotional connection. Empathy, likewise, is the ability to intimately match and share the feelings of another party. These two emotions are attributes of God, and they have been bestowed to all people as his image-bearers. However, these two emotions have unfortunately been migrated into our transaction-based culture; their true significance is lost, even in the overall romanticized and sexualized society we possess today. This is not the way the Lord intended these beautiful, inherited qualities to be portrayed. We must look to Jesus, the Perfect Image, as the fount of self-denying love and abundant empathy.
Self-denying love is at the core of Jesus’ heart and ministry. His mission was to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and this was done entirely through the “great love by which he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4). His fierce love must not go unnoted too; he fought and died for us. The penalty paying death of Jesus is the culmination of his self-denying love for the world. Paying the price for the sins of all in full (1 John 2:2), he took up the cross that had been designated for us, the cross that we deserved. This is because God is just and holy (Deuteronomy 32:4). He demands payment for our transgressions, and that payment is death (Romans 6:23). His holy wrath was fully enforced onto his Son, Jesus. Jesus completely denied himself before the world in order to endure God’s wrath and inaugurate a kingdom of self-giving, self-denying love.
All other gifts are but a shadow of gospel-centered love. Paul, in one of his letters to the Corinthian church, makes mention of the importance of love. He characterizes genuine, biblical love after addressing the saddening division that is happening within the church that he is writing to. Paul talks about love as being the greatest solution to the body of Christ, and, even more than this, to the entire world.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”1 Corinthians 13
Partnering with love, the abundant empathy of Jesus is manifested within his earthly dwelling. Jesus’ empathy is revealed when he came down to earth, humbling himself in the great mystery and truth of becoming fully man, yet retaining his status as fully God: the incarnation. Mysterious as it is, the incarnation is the greatest representation of Christ’s empathetic ministry, being supported by humility. Jesus came down to earth in humility, loved in humility, served in humility, ministered in humility, died in humility. Christ empathized with all of humanity by becoming a human himself. He sympathized with our same struggles, yet he remained sinless and holy (Hebrews 4:15).
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”Philippians 2:5-8
Love isn’t something that is exchanged; it is freely given. Likewise, empathy is coupled with love and rooted in humility. Jesus fully characterized and demonstrated these two God-given attributes, their culmination at his sacrificial death. All believers are likewise called to the same ministry of Jesus: to love and empathize with others intimately in order to glorify God. We are not called to the transaction-based love or empathy of our culture; rather, we are called to the self-denying love and abundant empathy of the gospel.