In this series, we are looking what it means to live a life on mission for God. Or, put another way, to practice what I call whole-life evangelism. In this post, we’ll explore why our love, expressed in action and empathy, is such an important part of our witnessing Christ.
Last week, I had the immense blessing of conducting a five-day seminar on preaching with pastors and Bible students from Accra, Ghana. It was a joint project between Burke Community Church and our long-time partner Agape Gospel Mission. Over the course of the week, the topic of surfacing an audience’s “felt needs” came up a number of times. In homiletics (the practice of preaching), felt needs refers to the emotional responses members of an audience might have to a message. It is the thing that allows them to feel the word in addition to hearing and understanding it.
To get this across, I used an example from Hosea, in which God uses adultery to demonstrate how He experiences idolatry. Sadly, just about everyone has probably experienced unfaithfulness in some fashion. Many know it from first hand experience, while others know it from the experiences of loved ones or friends. At a minimum, if you have ever experienced romantic love, you can imagine the pain of the one you love cheating on you. And God basically tells us “that is how I feel when you place other things before Me.” Ouch! That hurts. And it’s a pain you feel, not just know.
This movement from intellectually understanding what idolatry is to emotionally experiencing it – to feeling it in the pit of our stomach – is felt need. And felt need, I believe, it is the place where the transformative work of the Holy Spirit begins. So we need to get there.
Felt Need and Pathos
In the area of whole-life evangelism, felt needs are represented by our pathos. Pathos, in one modern day context, is defined as “an element in experience or in artistic expression evoking pity or compassion.” Thus, the Greek word παθος (meaning “suffering” or “experience”) serves as the basis for our words sympathy and empathy. It represents, in essence, stepping into another’s experience of suffering – going through it with them.
Pathos also is the second in Aristotle’s three methods of persuasion, the other methods being ethos and logos. Aristotle notes that “persuasion may come through the hearers, when speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts.”
Pathos and Evangelism
So how does pathos relate to evangelism? In much the same way that it relates to homiletics. Just as everybody has some felt need for the word of God, everybody has a felt-need for God Himself. Everybody, as Tim Keller puts it, has that “God-sized hole” in their heart that only He can fill. Whether they believe in God or not, they still need Him.
Consider an often-studied biblical example; the woman at the well. She has a need for water which keeps bringing her back to the well for more. But the water she retrieves can never permanently quench her thirst. Jesus offers her “living water” (basically Himself), that can quench her thirst, because her true thirst is for God. In the same way, He points out to her that she is trying to fill, in other areas of her life, her deep need for him. In particular, she is trying to fill it with men. And no matter how many times she remarries, the void remains.
When her heart is opened and her true need revealed to her, she says to Jesus “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” In other words, she acknowledges that the answer to all things and all needs in life will come from Messiah. The door is now open. And Jesus simply responds “I who speak to you am He.” John 4:25-26. He walks into her life.
But note, He gained entry by revealing both her perceived felt need (men) and her true felt need (Him). And He couldn’t have known her perceived felt need without knowing her. He stepped into her experience. He had empathy. And he had sympathy. He used pathos.
Just as Jesus taught us, we too must engage pathos in our sharing of the Good News. We must surface and understand the perceived felt needs of others; the things they are trying to use as a substitute for God and the voids that they perceive need filling.
Think of a person you may be trying to reach right now. Is he lonely, like the woman at the well, perceiving his void as lack of human relationships and trying to fill it with the same? Is she fearful, perceiving her void as lack of security and trying to fill it with careers or money? Is he sad or bored, perceiving his void as unhappiness and trying to fill it with worldly pleasures? No matter who we are and what we have been through, if we don’t know God, we don’t truly understand our void. We will always see it as something else.
Key to our sharing the gospel, therefore, is understanding how people perceive the void in their lives that only the gospel can satiate. And the journey to understanding this perceived void does not begin with analysis. It begins with experience. It does not begin with an explanation. It begins with a question (or series of questions). It begins with empathy – the very stepping into the shoes of another to see how they see the world and their place in it.
It Starts With Our Ears
So how do we go about this journey of pathos? It’s fairly simple, really. Just listen. Listen to their story. Listen to their worldview. Listen to their experiences. Listen to their loves, their hates, the things that thrill them, and the things that disgust them. It begins with our ears.
Oh sure, the journey at this point must involve our mouths – we need to ask questions. But ask questions not with an eye toward answering them. Ask questions with an ear toward hearing people. Ask questions so you can know who people truly are and how they are trying to fill the void in their life that you know only Jesus can fill. And after you ask, be quiet and listen.
Finally, and equally importantly, it is important to consider that pathos can involve more than listening. It involves loving in other ways too. When our faith is expressed through our actions, we demonstrate that we are truly in the game. We show we share the love of God with our whole lives. In other words, we practice whole-life evangelism.
If your friend is lonely, spend time with him. If she is fearful about financial security, walk through her budget with her and help her develop a plan. If he is perpetually lacking joy, do something fun together – treat him to a movie, or bowling, or a round of golf. When we show a willingness to truly step into the life of another and experience what they are experiencing, we demonstrate on some small level the sacrifice Christ made for us.
Lord Jesus, You gave us the perfect example of pathos. You loved us so deeply that You willingly stepped into our shoes, entered our world in flesh just like ours, to die just as we will. You became not only the perfect example of empathy, You become the perfect method of deliverance. Help us to step into the lives of others so that we might point them to You. Amen.
 Aristotle, On Rhetoric, Book 1, Part 2.