Imprecatory Empathy

by Mikel Berger

I recently read a book by an FBI hostage negotiator and listened to an interview of a military interrogator. The common thread between the two is the use of empathy in their jobs. Empathy isn’t something I associate with either the FBI or the military. They are fascinating. One thing, maybe the only thing, I have in common with the author of the book and the guest of the podcast is that I also was recently thinking a lot about empathy in my work. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or my more layman’s definition, the ability to step into the shoes of another.

We see empathy taught and demonstrated all throughout Scripture. One of the most clear examples is in Romans 12:15.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV)

For the last few weeks, it seemed like the call to empathy was popping up on my radar a lot. But at the same time, I saw something else popping up on my radar a lot too that didn’t seem to square totally with my attempts to have an empathetic outlook on life.

For example, take Psalm 10:12-15:

Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;

forget not the afflicted.

Why does the wicked renounce God

and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?

But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,

that you may take it into your hands;

to you the helpless commits himself;

you have been the helper of the fatherless.

Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;

call his wickedness to account till you find none. (ESV)

I recently quoted this passage in an email regarding a shepherding and counseling update the elders had prayed for at our previous meeting. As we learned more information about the situation of abuse, I prayed that the abuser would be called to account. I naturally empathized with the abused.

But then, this past Sunday, Abraham preached from Psalm 129. I was convicted when he asked how can we pray for the destruction of those who hate Zion when we are called to love our enemies. Am I supposed to be empathetic toward my enemies? Do I really have to put myself in their shoes? If I do that, I realize that I, too, was an enemy toward God before he changed me and brought me to himself through his son, Jesus Christ.

So was my prayer wrong to hold the evildoer to account? No, I don’t think it was wrong, but it was incomplete. My prayer for justice is incomplete if I leave it at just asking for “arm breaking.” I want no wickedness to be found in the abuser, just as I want no wickedness to be found in me, even if it means God uses some painfully broken arms to get to that point. That is my prayer. I want justice for the vulnerable AND I want God to show his gracious mercy on the hardest and cruelest of souls. I should be empathetic to the abused and the abuser, and there’s no contradiction in that.

There’s no contradiction because I want to understand and share the feelings of another. Beyond the abused and the abuser, the “other” I most want to understand and share the feelings of is the one that is most “other”, our Holy God. Pray that with me for all of us.