In 1974, Burger King announced its advertising slogan “Have It Your Way.” Recognizing the increasing societal emphasis on individuality and self-expression in the 1970s, they saw an opportunity to gain popularity by enabling customers to “have what you want, exactly when you want it.” Burger King was one of many campaigns which embraced individuality and self-expression, contributing to a society with a myriad of opinions, ideas, and lifestyles. As a result, it’s not uncommon to encounter people who think differently than you do. While the natural inclination, when faced with opposing ideas, may be to become defensive or judgmental, finding yourself among people who are different from you—and quite frankly, you don’t understand—is also an opportunity to practice empathy. I recently found myself in just such a situation while visiting one of Life.Church’s global mission partners, Church in Action (Kirche in Aktion, or KiA).
KiA plants churches throughout the Rhine-Main region of Germany. This area is a post-Christian society, where over 80% of people in their community want nothing to do with Jesus. As a result, when KiA planted their first church 15 years ago, they realized that in order to reach those around them, they couldn’t simply invite them to church; they needed a unique approach. KiA recognized that all people, regardless of their religious views, desire both community and purpose, so they started inviting people to join them as they serve in the darkest areas in their city. This mission is fueled by the Lord’s Prayer. KiA understands that when Jesus prayed “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” He was pleading for the brokenness here on earth to be restored to what it ought to be; not just in the future when Jesus returns, but here and now. When KiA serves their community, helping transform the lives of those around them, they are a part of heaven breaking into their city. As a result of this mission, KiA has thriving ministries to the homeless community, refugees, homebound elderly, and the red-light district. It was while visiting the heart of their ministry to the red-light district—a drop-in center for prostitutes—that I learned how to practice empathy.
Sitting in the drop-in center, surrounded by pictures of some of the thousands of women who work in that district, I began pondering how they found themselves in this situation. As I listened to some of the stories of these women, my heart broke. I learned about women who lived in deep poverty in their home country and were seeing their children starve, so they immigrated to Germany hoping for better opportunities but instead found themselves trapped in prostitution. I learned about women whose families were told they would receive an education and job but were trafficked instead. I learned about women whose own husbands forced them to sell their bodies. With each story that poured forth, my preconceived notions were washed away and replaced with empathy, as I realized that I, too, could have found myself in the same situation had my circumstances been different. My eyes were opened to the complexity of each woman’s situation, and I realized that while these women are very different from me, they are also very similar.
Walking away from that conversation I had a whole new perspective. I discovered these three steps to practicing empathy with people you don’t understand:
1. Listen to their story. When we set aside our preconceived notions and truly listen to a person’s story, our hearts and minds begin to see beyond the facts, to the person before us.
2. Remember your story. When we humbly remember that every single person (ourselves included) is made in the image of God and that we are all sinners in need of grace, we understand that we are no better than anyone else and are able to set aside our defensiveness and judgment.
3. See them as Jesus sees them. When Jesus looks at you, He sees someone He loves deeply; someone He was willing to die for (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). Jesus sees someone whom God knit together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). He sees a masterpiece God wants to use to change the world (Ephesians 2:10). And when Jesus looks at the people who are different from you, He sees the same thing. When we see people how Jesus sees them, our lens becomes love, and our posture becomes empathetic.
In a world with endless opinions, ideas, and lifestyles, we have an opportunity. We can give in to our natural tendency to be defensive and judgmental, or we can embrace the example Jesus left us and practice empathy with people we don’t understand.