When King Became Servant: Empathy in the Incarnation

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The passion, or suffering, of Christ began with his incarnation not with the cross. From the moment the King became a servant He modeled and called for a new kind of empathy.

And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:19

Imagine you’re an Israelite settled in your own land and you come across people unlike you. Maybe you feel threatened by them. They’re different from you, perhaps speaking another language, practicing different customs, celebrating different holidays. They look different. You don’t know if you can trust them.

But God reminds you of your own experience. You also traveled through unfamiliar lands, speaking a different language, feeling vulnerable. Remember feeling out of place? Self-consciously unfamiliar? Uncertain? Remember the unease of being unable to distinguish between friend and foe? Of being at the mercy of others? Now, look at the foreigner again, and show them love for you yourselves were foreigners.

This brings me to Advent and the arrival of our great high priest.

Thinking Jesus’ experience on earth was just so-so until he got arrested fails to take into account just how much heaven differs from earth. His suffering began on Christmas.

What was it to take on flesh and experience human birth, if not suffering? No greater chasm exists than that which separates God from man. Imagine the trauma of a holy being entering the world through the pain of labor. Traumatic enough for a human child with nothing to compare it with but the warmth of a mother’s womb, but the God child?

What was it to go from being worshiped by angels in paradise to being ignored and rejected by man, to being born into scandal and in subpar conditions? No man could see God and live (Exodus 33:20). The Israelites couldn’t approach the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:12). A man touched the ark of the covenant and died immediately (2 Samuel 6:7). But here, with the incarnation, God can be seen, drawn near to, and touched.

He refused to glorify himself (John 8:54) or take earthly kingdoms for himself (Matthew 4:8,9) without dying for them first. If suffering seems too strong a word, consider all the culture shock, inconvenience, discomfort, exasperation, exhaustion, miscommunications, slights, vileness and rejection he endured before his death.

I lived abroad for five years, two of which were in one of the poorest countries in Asia. My first bed in China was a Mickey Mouse fabric-colored box, brutal on my back. One evening during a typhoon, I got rained on while I slept thanks to a hole in the wall above the bed in my 18th floor apartment. In a single commute I passed nearly every form of bodily excretion on the street.

Many used to the comforts of the United States say they would never live where they didn’t have running water or electricity, couldn’t speak the language, or where it was dirty, inconvenient, or dangerous. The difference between heaven and earth makes the differences between the richest and poorest countries on earth seem like nothing. Here we have city people who refuse to move to rural areas, suburbanites who refuse to live in cities— and who wants to live in Appalachia?

Who volunteers to live in filth and inefficiency? Jesus was slumming it when He came to earth. Any other image is too sanitized. He chucked the comforts of heaven and became poor so we could become rich.

And the people? Hypocrites, vipers, panderers, unbelieving, ego- and money-driven people. We can barely suffer those who disagree with us politically. We insist our friends share our values. We weary under the strain of unreciprocal relationships. Jesus spent 33 years living with idiots to save them.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death…For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Hebrews 2:14-18

…..

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin. Hebrews 2:14-18

Matthew Henry’s commentary says, “The remembrance of his own sorrows and temptations, makes Christ mindful of the trials of his people, and ready to help them.”

Jesus contextualized God’s love for humans by embodying it—full stop, total immersion.


The etymology of these words reveals a surprising link among them.

Compassion: from Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with’. From com- “together” + pati “to suffer”

 

Patience: from Old French, from Latin patientia, from patient- ‘suffering’ from the verb pati

 

Mercy: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.

Patience, compassion, and mercy all involve suffering.

Jesus broaches the topic with Peter after he asks how many times he must forgive his brother by sharing the story of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-25).

Here, a man pardoned is unable to pardon. Patience and compassion show up in the master’s pardon but are absent when the pardoned man forces his debtor to pay. The master asks, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you,” those feelings of desperation then relief being so fresh?

Shouldn’t the Israelites treat foreigners well for they once were foreigners?

Wasn’t Jesus able to show us mercy because he knew firsthand our weakness?

Advent and the incarnation teach me to enter into others’ worlds and pain and suffer with people to love them better. Empathy comes from both shared experience and shared burdens. When our long-suffering, compassion, and empathy lead us to mercy, we imitate Christ.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
Philippians 2:5-7

Written by Alicia Akins

Alicia Akins is a lover of arts, one-on-ones with friends, Asia, al fresco dining, textiles, swing dancing, and Jesus. She often jokes that she’s lived multiple lives since she’s moved 8 times in 10 years and has held a variety of jobs. She moved to DC in 2014 after a two year stint working at a museum in Southeast Asia. When not at her day job, Alicia can be found exploring street art, FaceTiming with old friends, eating her way through Chinatown, reading commentaries, or pretending to be fit at her gym.

In college, Alicia developed a love for ministry and enjoys helping women develop a deep love for the Word and an understanding of how to apply it to their lives. She’s had the opportunity to do some of that work abroad. She keeps a blog of her overseas and DC adventures at feetcrymercy.wordpress.com.

About Alicia Akins

Alicia Akins is a lover of arts, one-on-ones with friends, Asia, al fresco dining, textiles, swing dancing, and Jesus. She often jokes that she’s lived multiple lives since she’s moved 8 times in 10 years and has held a variety of jobs. She moved to DC in 2014 after a two year stint working at a museum in Southeast Asia. When not at her day job, Alicia can be found exploring street art, FaceTiming with old friends, eating her way through Chinatown, reading commentaries, or pretending to be fit at her gym.

In college, Alicia developed a love for ministry and enjoys helping women develop a deep love for the Word and an understanding of how to apply it to their lives. She’s had the opportunity to do some of that work abroad. She keeps a blog of her overseas and DC adventures at feetcrymercy.wordpress.com.

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