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Personal Testimony of the Power of Christ’s Empathy

Not long ago, I asked a simple question: “Which of Jesus Christ’s teachings or stories is the most meaningful or relevant in your life today…and why?”

Here are just a few of the responses….

Ed—husband, father, Chinese-American, physician, member of a stake presidency—said: “The story of Jesus, the Jew, teaching the Samarian woman at Jacob’s well. Because I see how ‘mainstream’ members must reach outside their comfort groups to seek out the ‘socially unnoticed,’ ‘even looked-down-upon’ to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the process, we will see the worth of all souls regardless of the differences in cultures and traditions, and genuinely love them all, as Jesus and Heavenly Father do.”

Mike—husband, father, documentary film maker, of Presbyterian faith—stated: “The Sermon on the Mount, because it includes so many moral teachings that are as relevant today as ever; because it includes the Lord’s prayer, in which Jesus teaches us how to pray; and because it basically turns the world’s values upside down. Christ also raises the bar very high in terms of our behavior.”

Levent—father, husband, American Muslim, community leader, tech manager for NASA—responded: “I think Jesus’ missions of reforming the errant ways of the Jews and of loving and serving his neighbor, especially the unfortunate, is most significant. I also think Mary is an inspiring example of a righteous woman of faith. She inspires us to honor mothers and honor womanhood in the service of God.”

Jean—mother, grandmother, and primary caregiver in her fifty-three-year marriage—stated: “Christ’s admonition ‘As I have loved you, love one another’ . . . because I want to be known, and thought of, as one of Christ’s disciples who tries to follow his example and teachings in my life, and in my relationships with others.”

Richard—husband, father, of the Jewish faith and psychologist to professional athletes and the entertainment industry—confided: “I may not be the best person to answer this because, while I am respectful of my faith, I am not literate in the teachings of Judaism. But, simply put, I see in the teachings of Christ the importance of faith, hope, and sacrifice.”

Dennis—husband, father, psychologist, director of Pepperdine’s Center for the Family, member of the Churches of Christ—replied: “I am continually aware of my need for God’s grace. Much of my professional life is based on accomplishments, and ‘works,’ to earn promotions and advancement. It is helpful to be reminded that my relationship with God and my salvation are not based on working hard or being deserving, but through the grace of God, through Christ—something I could never accomplish on my own.”

Michael—husband, father, university senior advancement officer, Lutheran minister—answered: “Luke 4—Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Because for me, this is the content of the mission God has given me. The focus is always on serving the downtrodden and marginalized.”

Claudette—wife, African-American, director of university alumni relations, drawn to her Episcopal congregation for their social justice ministries—said: “Jesus constantly reached out to those who were considered ‘untouchable,’ who might today be described as marginalized. Even though these people were considered by the conventional religious practice of that era to be of low status, or unclean, or unacceptable, Jesus embraced them.”

Well, little did I realize, when I posed this simple question to friends and colleagues recently, the ensuing conversations I’d enjoy and be thoughtfully provoked by. I received responses from Jews, Muslims, Evangelicals, agnostics, and Latter-day Saints. Individuals of different cultures, ethnicities, and education levels, as well as different faith traditions. Yet how interesting (and in some ways eternally perfect) it was that each person’s response was as diverse as the child of God expressing them. I suspect, as is the case for myself, that you would have heard a different response five years ago . . . as you would a year from now. I am grateful for these responses and the relationships of trust and respect that they reflect. But I am most grateful for the tutoring I have received as a result of their insights concerning Christ’s ministry and example . . . to Christian, Muslim, and Jew alike. It has been a rich source of reflection and contemplation about my own testimony of Christ and being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s quite a reality check when I think that Christ’s entire mortal ministry was only three years long—the fulcrum of human history, the time everything that went before pointed to and the time everything has happened since hearkens back to. I think back to three years ago. It was really just yesterday! I have been a professor for over thirteen years and I feel as if I still don’t quite get it. I’ve attempted to play tennis for about thirty-five years and I am still struggling. Christ has less time than is contained in one term of an American president in which to save the entire human family. To say that He hits the floor running is an understatement! He makes maximum use of every moment of time.

So, I ask the question to myself, “Which of Jesus Christ’s teachings or stories is the most meaningful or relevant in my life today as a woman, a psychologist, and a professor . . . and why?” And, as a member of the Mormon faith, “What compels me to voluntarily commit so much of my time and money engaged in things besides my career/family, when both can be in short supply?”

I look to Christ. In my opinion, EVERY teaching of Christ leads to the atonement, and arguably my three favorite scriptures describe the essence of the Atonement—that is, Christ’s willingness, ability, and eternal commitment to find, fix, bind up, repair, make whole and holy everyone who is lost or broken. One of the most touching moments in Christ’s mortal life that illustrates His profound commitment to heal us is recorded in Matthew 14:12-14. Jesus had just received word that His beloved cousin and closest friend, John the Baptist, had just been murdered by Herod. He is devastated by grief. He goes away by Himself to mourn and weep, but the multitudes follow Him, clamoring for help—and, at this moment of His deepest need, He rises up, goes to them and begins ministering to their needs. Because that’s what Christ does: He ministers, He heals, He fills us, no matter His own fatigue or sorrows.

Second, there is a particular component of Jesus’ life that has always overwhelmed and touched me. It is best reflected in the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” The scene in John 11:35 . . . Christ at the side of Mary and Martha grieving at the death of their brother, Lazarus. Can you just picture the Savior of the world, overcome with sadness because of a profound loss? The scriptures do not say that he cried or just shed a few tears—but the Master wept! What a model of pure empathy.

And my third favorite “one-liner” from Christ, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, tutors me about relationally responding to all of His children when He says, “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37). Really, I believe we can almost encapsulate the entire Gospel message in these three passages: In a moment of His own pain the Savior ministers to others; He displays God-like empathy, and then He acts.

Empathy has been a focus of mine for many years now. Oddly enough, it’s been part of my job description in teaching/supervising future psychotherapists. In fact, along with teaching and observing students’ in empathic “techniques,” I share with my students that researchers have determined that it is one’s perceived receiving of empathic understanding that is the defining and most predictable factor for positive outcomes in psychotherapy. A pretty simple and humbling idea for clinicians to hear. It’s inspired empathy, rather than the number of degrees on the wall, the designer furniture in your office, or your theoretical orientation that predicts positive outcome or change for those you seek to serve. While we all know that there are relational skills or sensibilities that improve love, communication, and understanding, Christ-like empathy is informed by the Spirit.

Empathic attunement to others is so fundamental, not just to my professional work, but to all of our lives, in general. It’s vital to our growth as citizens in the world, because there are too many failures of empathy that constrain our ability to live as a community of believers, as Christ taught us to do.

I recall a conversation I had with some colleagues awhile back. A married couple, humble yet noteworthy members of the Mormon Church, with a respected resumé professionally and of Church service. They had experienced the unexpected and tragic death of one of their sons. I sensed their desire to share with me their experience, now that some time had passed. So I found myself in a familiar scene of asking if they’d be willing to take me by the hand and walk me through their emotional world. The husband stated: “I was so profoundly pained by this loss . . . The grief was traumatic and I became numb. One of our congregation leaders at the time came and preached to me. It was quite excessive. He didn’t tune into my emotions at all. He was unable to reach and touch my pain. The whole experience left me feeling more empty, quite disappointed, and quite confused, actually, at this leader’s inability to reach my suffering.” Being a psychologist, he then added, “Perhaps, in some way, this leader was defensively trying to protect himself from his own anxiety at my situation, and thus preached doctrine instead of touching our family’s pain. Fortunately though, there were three other leaders, very distinguished leaders in the Church, none of whom tried to preach to us about what we should do or how we should handle it, but simply embraced us and shared their empathy for our feelings. This was so powerful and satisfying.”

His wife then added, “Our son was one of three triplets, and I can remember vividly another well-intentioned woman in the ward who said to me ‘I’m so sorry about your son. But at least you have the other two.’”

Oops. Yet again, another failure to display an emotion matching or mirroring the others. Another mis-step in effective Christ-like empathy. Certainly we can all do a better job at looking to Christ’s depth and capacity of expressing appropriate and authentic emotion. In so doing, perhaps we will become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, as we sit alongside others on their worst days.

In contrast, there are numerous great examples daily, worldwide, of the kind of empathy we seek to practice . . . in therapy offices, hospitals, humanitarian relief, interfaith collaborations, in family homes, dialogues on campuses, women’s shelters, orphanages, hospices. We’ve all witnessed and been humbled by them.

This is what inspires me. This is where a significant part of my testimony lies.

A central aspect of Christ’s teaching that, in my humble opinion, exemplifies that he was the greatest psychologist who ever lived, was to communicate the life-transforming power of knowing our Heavenly Father, not as intellectual knowledge, but as a direct relational experience.

The woman at the well, just as the young woman confiding in her Bishop, was so profoundly moved by Jesus’ empathic understanding of her that she felt as if he knew “everything she ever did.” This was how Jesus demonstrated his personal power. At times he showed his miraculous spiritual and intellectual power, but he had a special love, a perfect love, for communicating personal power through his empathy for others. Jesus had the ability to impress large crowds with amazing displays of divine authority, but he was most interested in making contact with each individual personally. He did not see his greatest miracles on earth as having to do with physical displays of supernatural power; he saw them as moments when his empathic connection with human hearts left lives changed forever. Empathy is understanding, and no one in the history of the world has displayed a greater capacity for it than Jesus. As a result of his mortal experience, culminating in the Atonement, the Savior knows, understands, and feels every human condition, every human woe, and every human loss. In fact, one of the blessings of the Atonement is that we can receive of the Savior’s succoring powers.

Neal A. Maxwell, an insightful leader in the Mormon faith, described the relationship between the Atonement and the Savior’s succoring powers this way: “His empathy and capacity to succor us—in our own sickness, temptations, or sins—were demonstrated and perfected in the process of the great Atonement.” Elder Maxwell went on to say, “The marvelous Atonement brought about not only immortality but also the final perfection of Jesus’ empathic and helping capacity.”

Clearly, Elder Maxwell has taken the idea of empathy into a higher realm. By his use of this and other scriptures, as well as inspired insight, he describes a transcendent form of empathy that we can acquire only as a gift of God. We might call this meta-empathy . . . when the Lord gives us insight into another person’s feelings that carries us beyond ordinary perceptions. With this insight, we are enlightened to heal and help those around us in a unique way.

Sadly, we rarely encounter empathy “as a way of being,” in ourselves or in others. Many of us need to consciously “shift gears” in order to get into that calm, loving, empathic zone. In fact, I’ve become more surprised at how few people are aware of the power of empathy or even the concept of empathic attunement in their relationships.

Truman Madsen, a Harvard-educated philosophy scholar, described the power of Christ’s empathy when he stated that “No human encounter, no tragic loss, no spiritual failure is beyond the pale of his present knowledge and compassion. . . . And any theology which teaches that there were some things he did not suffer is a falsification of his life. He knew them all. Why? That he might succor, which is to say comfort and heal, this people. He knew the full nature of the human struggle.”

So, what are the obstacles to empathy in our lives today? Well, the list is endless: pride, arrogance, anger, status seeking, judging, blaming, narcissism, defensiveness, parent exhaustion, anxiety/depression. Countless factors are working against us in reaching that Christ-like empathy.

Meta-empathy, as I referred to earlier, or reaching toward the Christ-like discernment of knowing another’s emotions, occurs, and is quite different than everyday kindness. It is a gift from God. Reaching towards God’s empathy, we need to rely on faith in God and in his timing, not our own. Christ’s empathy is more perfect than ours, for he can know and read our minds completely. He can know more perfectly how to help us and how we might help others. Who more than we, his disciples, need to be understood, need to be healed, and need to be inspired ourselves, so that we in turn can reflect God’s love and serve as his instruments?

None of us have experienced every human experience, so we fall short in having direct empathy for everyone’s challenges to which our heart responds. However, to the extent that we are people of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we may be, like Jesus, more tender and more compassionate. He looks for goodness where others see badness. In the broken-down soul He sees humility. In the sinner He sees emptiness and readiness. He perfectly practiced the charity He preached. He invites us to see each other with “kindness and pure knowledge” (2 Cor. 6:6; D&C 121:42). And if we are to see each other right, we must first be willing to see goodness.

One simple place to start might be to increase our capacity to listen empathically, as well as to tolerate uncomfortable things—and do so without feeling compelled to preach at someone (as my friend painfully shared) or to generate a ten-point plan of how they can “snap out of it.” It is my observation that most people listen with the intent to reply, not with the intent to understand. Once again, it’s worth remembering that Christ’s empathic response to those deeply grieving the loss of Lazarus was to openly weep with them (John 11:35).

I love the Savior with all my heart. He is a Comforter. He is a Friend.

I’m grateful for his atoning sacrifice and for the ways in which he consecrates my best efforts—and makes up for my lacking.

I am eternally grateful for having been born of “goodly parents.”

But even with the abundance of blessings I have received, when I have hit those inevitable Gethsemane days I am encouraged to remember that this is not my heavenly home. Rather, I am compelled to turn heavenward for His love, peace, and reassurance, through this time of training and correction. I thank the Lord for having loved and carried me in times when I have been less able to perceive His Hand in all things. This is my testimony and where my faith rests. This is where my stillness lies.

I know that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that He lives. I know that God lives and loves us.

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Marilyn S. Wright grew up in the Pasadena area of Southern California. She attended BYU-Hawaii for her first two years of college on both academic and athletic scholarships before transferring to UCLA, where she graduated with a degree in psychology. Dr. Wright received both her master’s and doctoral degrees from Pepperdine University, as well as completing a two-year psychology residency at Berkshire Medical Center in Massachusetts. For the past fifteen years, Marilyn has been on the faculty of Pepperdine, teaching in both their Marriage and Family Therapy as well as Doctoral Psychology programs. In 2005, Dr. Wright was Pepperdine’s invited commencement speaker and was honored with their Distinguished Faculty/Alumna of the Year Award for significant contributions to the field of psychology, reflecting values that the university upholds. She has served on Pepperdine’s Board of Visitors for the past five years.

In 2008, the California Psychological Association awarded Dr. Wright the Silver Psi Award for her sustained service to the profession and noteworthy contributions to the field.

Dr. Wright was in private practice from 1998-2008 in Pasadena, California, as well as on medical staff at two leading psychiatric hospitals in the area. She is past-president of the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association and, for eleven years, was the director of the Los Angeles Area Chapter of AMCAP, the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists. She currently serves on the editorial board of the journal Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy.

In 2007/08, Dr. Wright was asked to be the in-studio guest for a live KABC talk radio show in Los Angeles discussing the public’s common misperceptions of Mormons and the Mitt Romney campaign. The program received great ratings, and Dr. Wright was invited back on the program an unexpected nine times. She has been an invited speaker at BYU Education Week on a range of topics, from understanding and managing clinical anxiety and depression to the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers and emerging adults.

She currently serves as Oakland Stake’s Interfaith and Community Relations Specialist, and an Executive Committee Member of both the Contra Costa County Interfaith Council and the Lamorinda Interfaith Ministers Association.

In 2008, after forty-two years of holding out for “Mr. Wright,” he finally came along, and, shortly thereafter, she married and moved to northern California’s East Bay. She currently resides in the Moraga Ward, enjoys navigating the wonderful world of six grown children and eighteen grandchildren, and has a practice in Walnut Creek.

Posted October 2010