Jesus in the Trenches: The Empathic Healer and the Mystery of Suffering

When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

He Himself took our weaknesses
and carried our diseases.
(Matthew 8:14-15)

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, healing frames the Sermon on the Mount. We first see Jesus exercising power to heal and cast out demons in Matthew 4:24 right before he begins to preach the Sermon; immediately after he finishes preaching, he goes back to healing.

All three of the encounters with Jesus we’ve seen over the last few weeks were healing encounters. The leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law. In each, we see new depths of Jesus’ mission and character. We see something of who he is.

On this day – the Sabbath, Luke tells us – the crowds waited until evening to seek Jesus out. Perhaps they were worried about being judged or stigmatized by the religious leaders if they came for healing on the Sabbath. (This would certainly become a bone of contention later.)

Whatever the case, as soon as the sun went down, they began to arrive. Jesus set to work immediately. He drove out evil spirits with a word and healed everyone who was sick.

And then Matthew draws on the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to give us further insight into what Jesus was doing. He claims that these acts of healing were a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:

He Himself took our weaknesses
and carried our diseases.

Matthew’s claim here is interesting, because it goes against my interpretive instincts (yours too, most likely). When I hear the words “he carried our diseases,” I immediately connect the prophecy to the cross.

I’ve always been taught that it was in his death that Jesus took our weaknesses and carried our diseases, but Matthew says no (or at least, “not only”) – Jesus took these things in his life.

In his healings, Jesus demonstrates a quality of God usually translated “mercy.” And he gives us the deepest insight into the nature of God and his will that we’ve seen yet.

The Empathic Healer

One of the most profound and most overlooked characteristics of God is his empathy. The Hebrew word racham is commonly translated “mercy,” but this English rendering misses the force of it by a long shot. “Compassion,” another translation of the word, is better – but here too we’re still missing the depth of this component of God’s nature.

Racham is related to the word for “womb” and means a deep, gut-level compassion, the kind of intimate connection and identification that a mother feels for a baby she is carrying. In Greek, too, the word for mercy (eleos) does not just mean a judicial decision to show clemency but a deep, heartfelt compassion and desire to bring relief to one who suffers.

As a healer, Jesus is deeply empathic. A survey of his healings throughout the New Testament finds him not only going out of his way to physically touch the sick, but also groaning deeply, crying, getting angry, and suffering over the sufferings of others.

When Matthew observes that Jesus was “taking our weakness and carrying our diseases” in his Capernaum healings, he is commenting on Jesus’ profound level of identification with the broken.

Jesus was not showing off, and he was not simply working miracles for the sake of glorifying God. He was identifying himself with the weak. He was making himself one of us in our most broken and helpless state. He was feeling and demonstrating empathy for the sick.

He was “taking” all the grief, pain, and frustration they had long dealt with upon himself, into himself … and healing it.

A God Come Near

We might be tempted to think that Jesus differs from the Old Testament depiction of God in this quality of empathizing. But actually, one of the best descriptions of God’s mercy is found in a remembrance of the long-ago past.

Speaking of the exodus from Egypt, Isaiah says of the LORD:

In all their suffering, He suffered,
and the Angel of His Presence saved them.
He redeemed them
because of His love and compassion;
He lifted them up and carried them
all the days of the past.
(Isaiah 63:9)

From beginning to end, the God of the Bible is a God who suffers with his people. He is a God who identifies deeply with his children and who not only heals and cares for them, but also draws near.

He is not afraid of our pain and will stoop to feeling it with us, simply so he can be with us, lift us up, and carry us.

He’s With You

I don’t understand all the mysteries of illness and healing – or of timing – but I do know that in our suffering, no matter its cause, its nature, or its duration, Jesus promises to be with us.

This is the literal meaning of his promise in the Beatitudes: The word “comfort” in Greek means to “come alongside”; to draw near; to identify. To empathize.

The one charge we cannot ever level at God is that he doesn’t care or that he doesn’t understand our pain. In his life on earth, he chose to embrace human weakness and suffering. And he still does.

In you, in me, Jesus still experiences the pain of life on earth because he still empathizes with us. He’s not pulled into our self-pity, or panic, or our despair, but he does feel alongside us. He still “takes” our weakness and “carries” our disease.

And in some wonderful way, eventually or in a moment, out of this weak and suffering place we are given the promise of healing and deliverance.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Reading Matthew’s account, I find myself challenged to cast my cares on Jesus again – to release my fear, pain, doubt, and weakness to the one who both heals me and walks with me; who is both blessedly above all my problems and right down here in the trenches with me.

The Angel of his Presence is with me, and he will lift me up and carry me all of my days. You too. All we need to do is ask.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 106 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash



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2 responses to “Jesus in the Trenches: The Empathic Healer and the Mystery of Suffering”

  1. SHIRLEY Avatar

    Gradually over the past 14 years I’ve been experiencing the empathic power of healing. The intensity and circumference is growing, whereas my burden of suffering was first limited to people within the same room and now it seems to include everyone within my neighborhood. God gives me the discernment to know which disease I am fighting, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, sleep apnea, depression, etc. Sometimes it takes days to rid the person from the disease and sometimes weeks, but with each episode i feel the pain as if it’s happening to me (I’m carrying the burden). As i continue to study Jesus ministry, i interpret it as what I’m experiencing.
    This ministry has changed my life and causes me not to want to meet anyone or attend gatherings because the pain is overbearing and all consuming. I really wish I had someone to counsel me on how to live with this.

  2. Jacqueline Wallace Avatar

    I enjoyed this post. Thank you for pointing out that Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses. I like that. And it is true. He was a man of sorrows (and I understand that word can be translated “pains”) and acquainted with grief. Those words make me pause and consider more deeply what that means, both for Jesus and for us. For one thing, it says to me, He knows. He knows.

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