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Vulnerability and Empathy

January 15, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture—Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)

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.

Focus

It is amazing to think the very creator of the universe, because he took on human form with all its vulnerability, is able to empathize with us. As a result, we can be free of fear in our honesty with Jesus. And in imitating Jesus, we can learn to be vulnerable and empathetic with others. That empathy can be the doorway to a powerful ministry.

Devotion

Vulnerability is not merely weakness. Often it is the exposing of weakness. It is a letting down of defenses. In yesterday’s devotion, I wrote of the “astounding vulnerability of God” (referencing Philippians 2 as well as a recent Washington Post Christmas column by Michael Gerson.) Seen especially in the teaching and examples of Jesus and the apostles, biblical Christianity calls us to a similar vulnerability: a willingness to enter into situations of weakness, to let down our defenses, or simply to reveal our own weaknesses, even though doing so may make us more susceptible to being exploited.

One important aspect of practicing vulnerability—of being honest about our weaknesses, rather than trying to hide them—is that our vulnerability allows others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us: to encourage us, exhort us, or just to walk alongside us. Acknowledging our weaknesses also helps us to rely more on God’s strength (rather than our own), and thus also to give God glory for what he accomplishes in and through us rather than trying to credit our own strength. (This is a point that the Apostle Paul makes more than once.)

While these are certainly important aspects of vulnerability, there is another benefit I want to focus on today: vulnerability can help us make empathetic connections with those around us. In writing this, I think of many examples in my own life where I have benefited from the willingness of others to be vulnerable with me. And I think especially of what the author of Hebrews writes about Jesus: “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.”

Yes, our savior can empathize with us. He has experienced our weakness. And just as important as the fact that Jesus can empathize with us is our knowledge of that empathy. The author of Hebrews takes the time to let us know of that empathy, because it’s important for us to know. Knowing of Jesus’ empathy allows us to be more open with him. It helps build our relationship with him in that we know Jesus is more relatable. That empathy, I believe, is a very important part of Jesus’ ministry to us. And that type of empathy can be important in our ministry to others.

A few weeks ago I had a couple opportunities to practice vulnerability in my own workplace. I admit it wasn’t easy or natural for me. And yet I believe it was important, and has already borne fruit. Over the past year and a half, I have experienced more anxiety than at any previous point in my life. I don’t like to admit that. I’d rather give the impression that I’m so trusting of God I never feel fear or anxiety. But it’s not true. In fact, for the first time in my life this past fall my doctor told me I had hypertension (high blood pressure). The first question she asked me was whether I was experiencing stress.

My first step of vulnerability was sharing that diagnosis with the small group of men I meet with for prayer and bible study. Since we are in the practice of being vulnerable with each other, and it’s a very supportive group, that was relatively easy for me. I knew they would pray for me. It was more difficult to practice vulnerability at my job, however. Yet one day I felt led to do so. My workplace is a secular college. I am a professor, and the chair of my department. That puts me in a position of leadership with my colleagues, as well as authority over many students. In positions of leadership, it’s normal to want to project strength. Maybe that comes from a fear of our authority being undermined or taken advantage of if others of our struggles and weaknesses.

Yet I also knew that many of my students were struggling through a difficult time. My college is known for being academically very rigorous. In the best of times, it is a stressful environment. The pandemic itself has made it more difficult, adding challenges to the building of community. This fall a student who was taking two classes in my department took their own life. Many students in my classes had known that student personally. They were bearing a heavy emotional weight.

I decided one morning in class to share with my students some of my own struggles and challenges, including my recent diagnoses of hypertension and the stress and anxiety I had been experiencing. I’m sure that it was awkward for some students. Maybe some didn’t care. Perhaps others saw it merely as a chance to ask me for an extension or some other favor. But some students in the class responded in a deeply personal way, sharing more openly some of the things they were dealing with. There was suddenly a meaningful empathy. Or perhaps what really happened is that they now understood my empathy for them, which I had actually had all along. In short, it deepened the human connection between us. It made it more possible for me to minister to them as whole persons, and not just as intellectual containers for information.

Returning to the “astounding vulnerability” of Jesus, it is amazing to think the very creator of the universe, because he took on human form with all its human weakness, is actually able to “empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). We can be free of fear in our honesty with Jesus. And in imitating Jesus, we can learn to be vulnerable and empathetic with others. That empathy can be the doorway to a powerful ministry.

Reflect

Do you know what some of the struggles are of any folks whom you know from your work environment? If not, why do you think you don’t know? If yes, what are they?

What are some of your own areas of struggle or weakness? Who are some people you work with who might benefit if you were to show greater vulnerability with them?

Repeating a reflection question from yesterday: How does the story of Jesus’ vulnerability inspire or encourage you?

Act

Take advantage of Jesus’ empathy in your prayers. Take an opportunity to be vulnerable with somebody you know—from your workplace, if possible.

Pray

Lord, I thank you that Jesus knows my weakness and is empathetic toward me. Thank you for the vulnerability of Jesus, and for the resulting freedom I have to be honest with you.

I pray that I would practice that vulnerability with others, without fear. I admit that it isn’t easy. But I pray that when I do practice vulnerability, that it would help me communicate my empathy and deepen my relationships and witness.

In the name of Jesus who took on the weakness of human flesh and who knows my weakness, I pray,

Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Sabbath Rest in Christ: Needed for Life’s Journey (Hebrews 3:7–4:16)


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One thought on “Vulnerability and Empathy

  1. Larry McIntyre says:

    Thank you for your heartfelt comments. It was a blessing to read this devotion this morning. Thanks for letting God use you through this message.

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