I was about to explode with rage. My pride was on the line and I couldn’t let my partner at the time get away with mischaracterizing my behavior and intentions. I had to protect myself. We had been in this argument before. In fact, it was one of those arguments you repeat like a good Madonna song.
Needless to say, we were in a long-standing negotiation that looked more like a war zone than one of those conference rooms where deals are struck with handshakes and smiles. My immature tactics to pull him into deeper connectedness were shameful, and his resistance to my “controlling” tactics came across as selfishness. We were both hungry for something different.
In one of our heated arguments, I stepped away to cool down. Arguing had finally left me utterly sick and tired of feeling unheard. There had to be another way.
I replayed what he had been shouting for the last several months. It took me some time to imagine his emotional experiences of pleading and begging—especially when all he got in return were my demands, more of what I “needed.” In that quiet moment, as I sat on the edge of my bathtub, I could finally hear what he was saying. He wanted me to love the man he was, rather than force him into the man I thought he should become. Empathy allowed me to hear something other than my own voice. And when I apologized for not listening and insisting my needs be met first, I was able to recognize the damage I had created. In that moment, I think he had the same revelation. His apology came very soon thereafter.
For us, empathy created a sense of vulnerability and safety that allowed us to plunge into deeper relational waters where greater understanding dwells: he pleaded for the freedom of authenticity, and I was begging for a deep sense of safety. Both of our needs were valid. Maybe what kept us fighting was actually our need to get the other to bow down. Whatever it was, we couldn’t see that we were both right. In the end, I was hungry for safety and he was hungry for authenticity; I wasn’t controlling, and he wasn’t selfish. There was more than one version of truth. We needed to listen and empathize with one another to figure that out. To be honest, what shocked me most was learning that empathy did not make me wrong; it created room for his truth to be respected. Empathy saved the day.
To me, Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the greatest catalysts of empathy we read in the Bible. The book of Philemon is rather personal, more so than any other letter of Paul’s in the Bible. And it is often credited as more rhetorically acrobatic than any of Paul’s other letters. Some might say the book of Philemon is a plea wherein Paul tries to lovingly compel his comrade, Philemon. Many scholars, however, would say that Paul’s position as a Rabbi who had great social power gives this letter a rather passive-aggressive, maybe even slightly manipulative tone. I would agree. Paul surely leveraged his privilege and used cunning language and emotional tactics to pressure Philemon.
Paul starts by characterizing his affections. Onesimus had become Paul’s very heart, a sentiment mothers echo when they tell her sons, “You are my heartbeat.” Later, Paul pens one of my favorite lines in this short, but pertinent, letter: “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (Philemon 1:17). Essentially, Paul asserts his power over Philemon, motivating Philemon with guilt more than sincerity. One of the more audacious uses of guilt we see is when Paul encourages Philemon to make a decision out of his “own free will” (Philemon 1:14).
Later in the letter, we read that Philemon may have banished Onesimus because of outstanding debts (which Paul offers to repay). Paul not only asks that Philemon welcome Onesium back, but that he also see Onesimus not as a slave, but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). Essentially, Paul asks that any disagreement with or wrongdoing committed by Onesimus be forgiven, and—because he is loved—that he be received as an equal. Cunningly, Paul binds Philemon’s moral autonomy.
We do not have an account of what actually happened when Onesimus appeared on Philemon’s door step. But if Onesimus showed up at my door after racking up a debt and Paul had written his letter to me, I might need to have another sit-down, come-to-Jesus moment on the edge of my bathtub. I would need to swallow some pride and rehearse what it would feel like to love Onesimus, just as Paul had. I would have to find the grace to forgive Paul’s guilt-ridden measures and Onesimus’ wrongdoings, but also the willingness to love again.
Empathy that changes lives, restores relationships, and honors the humanity of another is particularly hard, especially when we sit at the top of the “privileged” food chain. Genuine empathy does not, and cannot, maintain the binaries of relational dualism—right versus wrong, the “accurate” version of truth versus the “off-base.” The practice of empathy requires that we simply listen to understand another’s equally valid perspective. Empathy teaches us about the major contradictions that often appear in relationships and the spiritual formation process. As Christian sojourners, we must be prepared to embrace paradoxes, especially if we aim to live in healthy community.
Walking side by side will often require empathy because we all have conflicting—and sometimes competing—needs, wants, convictions, and comforts. What I need in one moment might very well contradict what my neighbor, partner, or parent needs at the very same moment. In relationships, we must find the empathy that helps us honor and respect all involved. Empathy isn’t easy, but it will change the course of your relationships. I promise.
Questions for this week’s devotional:
How might empathy help your relationships transition and transform?
Is there a situation in your life that could benefit from your empathy?
How might you use empathy to support another, even if they challenge or disagree with you?
How might empathy create space for another’s version of truth, a version of truth that might create more relational intimacy?
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