empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. (Oxford Dictionary)
The October issue of Fast Company features an article on Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. Nadella has done well.
. . . he’s generated more than $250 billion in market value [for Microsoft] in just three and a half years . . . .
But what is more interesting is that this bottom-line success was achieved with a gentler approach to leadership. McCracken tells us that Nadella “believes that human beings are wired to have empathy, and that’s essential not only for creating harmony at work but also for making products that resonate.”
McCracken then tells us how empathy became so important to Nadella:
His philosophy stems from one of the principal events of his personal life. In 1996, his first child, Zain, was born with severe cerebral palsy, permanently altering what had been a pretty carefree lifestyle for him and his wife, Anu. For two or three years, Nadella felt sorry for himself. And then, nudged along by Anu, who had given up her career as an architect to care for Zain — his perspective changed. “If anything,” he remembers thinking, “I should be doing everything to put myself in [Zain’s] shoes, given the privilege I have to be able to help him.”
There are many lessons here, including the importance of having a good wife, something I enthusiastically say amen to. We also learn that empathy is good for business, which I think, it is. I respond to companies and individuals who take the trouble to try to understand my feelings and my needs.
But my most important takeaway from this article was how essential empathy is for human relating. Nadella is right in saying that “human beings are wired to have empathy”. Indeed, this is a concern in the Scriptures. In Romans 12:15, Paul commands us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”(NIV)
Yet I find that our churches are more concerned for right doctrine, ministry productivity, and dramatic encounters with God, than on relationships. One key piece of evidence for healthy relationships in a church will be the fact that empathy is expected, taught, and practiced. Anyone heard a sermon on empathy recently? Went to a workshop on one? I am not asking for any compromise on our convictions but for a commitment to understanding each other better so that better communication is made possible. I wonder what would be the health of our churches, and indeed our missional dialogue with the world, if we intentionally cultivate empathy.
Nadella’s story also gives us a clue as to how we can cultivate empathy. We learn empathy from our wounds. This too will not be a popular truth to embrace in a pain-avoiding society. But, again, Nadella echoes a truth we know from Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, Paul writes:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (NIV)
Paul then expands on “. . . the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” (v. 8b)
This seems to be a key principle in life that our Buddhist friends seem to understand better than we do; that the experience of pain teaches us wisdom that we otherwise could not learn.
Christians are not masochists. We do not go looking for suffering. Indeed, we celebrate wholeness, but we also know that our complete healing will come in the new heavens and the new earth — this side of heaven, pain and suffering are part of the realities of a fallen creation.
I am deeply concerned for a church that doesn’t put a high premium on relationships and the empathy that is a crucial component of that. I am deeply concerned for a church that is pain-avoiding and pain-denying, devoid of a proper theology of pain that allows us to learn from it. So, ironically, as is often the case, we are reminded of what is important by the world.