Various empathetic strategies come into play when a hurt or wrong is experienced. The empathetic strategies serve to contextualise or downplay the liability of the perpetrator in such a way that forgiveness is not so much required, but rather an expression of understanding about why the wrongdoing occurred.
Perhaps we might think that the incarnation was God’s way of developing empathy for our situation, and that the relationship of salvation he offers is tempered with understanding of our situation because Jesus has experienced human life.
I think that the outcome is perhaps something of the opposite: we know that God has experienced all that pertains to human life, and he forgives us anyway.
Empathy was not enough.
We needed forgiveness.
Jesus incarnates that forgiveness. His understanding of us is meant to encourage us to receive that forgiveness, not think that the forgiveness is moderated or contextualised.
Usually when we’re trying to forgive another person, we talk about motives. We didn’t mean to hit that person with our car. We didn’t mean to sleep through that emergency phone call. It could have happened to anyone.
Alternately, we may invoke backgrounds. “If you only knew hob had their childhood was, you might understand why they’re so prone to [x, y, or z.]” Or “If you were in their shoes, you might’ve done the same thing.” These are laudable attempts to reframe misfortune. When the damage we cause – and other cause us – is too great to tackle head-on, we marshal every rhetorical resource to shrink the infraction down to a more manageable size, preferably something small enough to require forgiveness, something for which applied empathy will suffice.
These strategies often work, thank God. But what about when the wrongdoing is so egregious that the burden cannot be minimised or empathised away?
In the Bible … forgiveness differs from applied empathy. It is both more daunting and more beautiful. The offence tends to made larger rather than smaller, the loss involved more concrete and less subject to contextualisation, the resolution more final.
David Zahl, Low Anthropology, Brazos Press, 2022, pg 108/109.