For those of us who have much, it is difficult to understand the lives of those who have little. We have trouble fully comprehending what life is like on the other side of the poverty line. But we’re closer to understanding than we might think.
Jesus is the person who brings us closer to understanding the difficulties of poverty. Jesus is the source of our empathy. My clue for this comes from passages like these:
“As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’” (Luke 9:57–58).
Jesus was born as a poor man, lived as a poor man, and died as a poor man. The Son of Man, Jesus, had "nowhere to lay his head." In his travels as a rabbi (teacher), Jesus relied on the hospitality of other people.
Jesus lived like the poor. There is sadness in this statement, but it’s also hopeful. It makes me sad for Jesus, but in my empathy for Christ, I am learning to have even more empathy for those who are hurting. I am growing closer to God’s heart as I think upon Jesus’ plight.
This is much of what believing in Jesus is all about: We have an opportunity to recognize how God himself experienced the full spectrum of suffering, as Jesus, and then do as Christ did—give of ourselves freely for the betterment of others. This leads to a profound lesson that Jesus taught in how he lived: self-sacrifice is essential.
There is hope for those living in extreme poverty. There is love to be offered. There is empathy to be found for each and every situation. There is empathy to be felt and experienced through our relationship with Jesus.
It is in Christ, who experienced poverty, that we also find the solution to poverty. We find new life through his resurrection. We find hope in him that we can offer to other people. We find order overtaking chaos. We find death itself not being able to hold back God’s work. We see a restoration of life—lived fully for the eternal God, starting now. There is power to be found in empathy.
If you find yourself struggling with empathy, look no further than Jesus; his example will guide you back. Jesus' self-sacrifice, for the sake of the spiritually and physically poor, is our example.*
Want to go deeper into this subject? Check out my new book, Jesus' Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change. With simple, everyday choices you can make the world a better place. Learn how to live Jesus' economy, the currency of love.
*This article is adapted from my earlier article, "Jesus and Empathy: Moving Closer to the Poverty Line."
I was under a publishing deadline and had been working for 12 hours straight. I suddenly caught a glimpse of the time: “What, it’s 6:50?” I was scheduled to deliver a sermon in 10 minutes. My destination was exactly 10 minutes away. I ran to my car and hopped in the front seat. I sped so fast out of the parking garage that as I rounded the last corner of the garage roundabout, the back tire of my Chevy Blazer hit the final curb.
At my destination, I rushed up the ten concrete stairs, in the front door, and straight down the aisle. The crowd was clearing the room already. It was 7:05pm. I was five minutes late and the homeless men were getting restless. I was at a rescue mission.
On the drive over, I had realized that I wasn’t just late, but that I had also failed to prepare a sermon. “What kind of preacher was I?,” I asked myself. But I had an idea: I had recently heard about a successful preacher who had started his ministry by doing Q&A (Question and Answer time). He had described it as one of the most rewarding ministry experiences of his life. So I went for it. “Ask me anything and everything about God, the Bible, or religion,” I shouted. It made the few guys on their way out the door sit down. I had their attention.
As you can imagine, the night was pretty wild. I sweated more that night than I do during my standard cardio workouts. But I survived, and incredibly, I saw several men accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior that evening. It turned out that a simple question had been standing between them and Jesus.
I spoke in that rescue mission chapel for years. And after that one evening of tardiness and a lack of preparation, I stopped preparing sermons altogether. I simply did Q&A. I have seen more people come to Jesus through this simple ministry than any single effort of spreading the gospel.
And lest you think this is just a personal ministry theory. Take a look at Jesus’ ministry. He regularly asked questions. One scene in particular comes to mind. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his closest disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered Jesus by noting that some say the Son of Man is John the Baptist, others that he is Elijah, and others still that he is Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Jesus, not content with the answers of his disciples, asked another question: “But who do you say that I am?” It is in this moment that Simon Peter says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” He not only recognizes who the Son of Man is, but also that Jesus is the Son of Man (Matthew 16:13–16 LEB).
In many regards, it was Jesus’ questions that led Peter to the right answer.
When it comes to helping someone who is hurting or dealing with a faith issue, it’s important to realize that simply being open to talking is often all that is needed. I don’t feel that it’s my answers that have brought people to faith; it’s really the openness that has made the biggest difference. I’m unafraid to talk about difficult issues, and you should feel the same. If our God can deal with our sin, then certainly he can handle our scrutiny.
The questions we ask reveal our heart. In this regard, questions often reveal more than answers. And Jesus’ questions reveal the most of all.
What questions are standing between you and Jesus? And how can you answer the questions of others?
As a young punk rocker, I spent my fair share of time in thrift stores. I was always on the hunt for another weird shirt, like the bright orange one that said “I agree with Tyler and Pete” or the black one with white block letters that read “Please Don’t Feed the Snowboarders.” I also became a connoisseur of polyester pants, considering them both classy and cool. In those years, the thrift store represented a treasure hunt. But today in the thrift store, I saw the faces of the people—I saw the despair and economic gaps present in our society.
In the thrift store, I witnessed the frazzled mother, hoping to find the clothes her children needed. I saw the elderly man who was trying to make his social security check go a little further. I looked in the eyes of the hurting and felt their anguish and pain. My perspective is different than it used to be: I see more than I used to and feel more too. Perspective and exposure transforms our Christian walk.
For many people, the problems of poverty are not pressing because of a lack of exposure. If you don’t see the face of poverty everyday—or at least regularly—you don’t realize just how real the problem is. When you see poverty everyday, it is hard to ignore it.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus aims to transform our perspective. He makes remarks like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs if the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are the merciful, because they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:3, 7 LEB). When our perspective changes to being poor in spirit, or exuding mercy, our entire lives also change. We realize that we too are poor and we too are in desperate need of mercy. And thus, we are willing to help and give.
Think about it for a moment: If you are poor in spirit, suddenly you see the poor just like you. If you are merciful in spirit, suddenly mercy becomes the norm. You desire to help the hurting. The thrift store becomes a place where your heart aches.
Exposure is critical. I realized this in my early twenties and thus started making intentional decisions to witness pain. I would walk through the downtown alley instead of the street. This forced me to walk by the sleeping homeless man, smell the urine around me, and witness a man dumpster diving. It made me aware everyday that poverty was real.
My time in alleyways often resulted in conversations. These conversations gave me chances to suggest to dumpster divers that they visit the local rescue mission. And of course, my alleyway conversations often gave me the opportunity to tangibly bless people by buying them a meal or cup of coffee. And then there were the times when Jesus came up—and I had a chance to spread the gospel. But at the very least, these alleyway walks forced me to change my perspective—to be aware of the wealth and poverty gap.
During my time in alleyways, I would often think of Jesus’ comments on poverty. Jesus equated himself with the impoverished—noting that in their faces is his face. He said that when we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, or visit the imprisoned, that we are serving him—we are doing it for him (Matthew 25:27–40).
How are you exposing yourself to poverty? How are you serving Jesus today?