“I don’t have the courage to do what you do. I don’t know how you do it!” I heard this often from friends at my old job. You might think that I was a cop or a brain surgeon, but I was a middle and high school teacher! I considered my job frustrating, sure, but never scary. So I asked what my friends found so scary about tinier, hormonal people. The most common response was that it was such a chaotic and confusing age that they didn’t know how to relate. Sometimes they also felt that preteens and teenagers overreact to minor things. They simply couldn’t understand why anyone would react that way. How can anyone, especially counselors and pastors, hope to have healthy relationships with our people when we find it hard to… relate?
The answer is that we need to be properly condescending.
What is Condescension?
We usually consider condescension an insult because we don’t like being “talked down to”. However, condescension is an old theological concept to describe how Christ came from Heaven to meet us on our level. The term comes from Latin and literally means “coming down to be with”. Because Christ came down to Earth to be our Immanuel, we know that ours is a God who sympathizes with us and has compassion on us (Matt 11:28-30; Heb 4:15). He lived a human life. He had a normal family. He made friends. He ate meals. He went to school and had a career. These experiences are significant because he not only knows in his divine omniscience the facts of our lives. He also knows where we are, has felt the emotions we have felt, and cares about the things that matter to us. As the pastor and theologian John Edwards preached, “None are so low, or inferior, but Christ's condescension is sufficient to take a gracious notice of them.” Our emotional world, regardless of age or background, is important to our God. If we are to love people as Christ did, we must be like him.
How Does Christ’s Condescension Help Our Relationships?
One of the most vivid portraits of condescension Scripture offers us comes in John 11:1-44. In this story, Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is dying. He decides to wait two days before going to Bethany. There he meets the dead man’s sisters Mary and Martha. Through these events, the Apostle John shows us Christ’s condescension and how it impacts his relationships.
1.Christ Knows What He is Doing
Jesus remains where he is knowing full well that his friend is dying (v.4). As God the Son, he knows that the will of the Father will be done in this situation. Yet crucially, at no point in the story does he comfort Mary and Martha with a full explanation of what that is! He knows that the pain Mary and Martha are experiencing will not be assuaged by a Sunday-School recitation about the glorification of God the Son. However, as Christians we know that suffering and hardship neither escape God’s notice nor defy his purposes. He knows what he is doing, even if we don’t.
2.Christ is Relationally Present With Us
Jesus came to Mary and Martha in their grief. He did not shy away or withdraw in discomfort. Even when his intentional two-day delay made this encounter harder, Jesus drew near to the broken. What Mary and Martha most needed in their grief was not a solution to their problems (for they did not know Lazarus would come back from death) nor a sermon on theodicy. Rather, what they most needed was the presence of Christ. He does not push them away nor rebuke them for the way they receive him. He simply joins them where they are and listens to what they have to tell him.
3.Christ Feels Alongside Us
Have you ever wondered why Christ wept at the death of Lazarus in John 11? Based on his words earlier in the chapter, we are told that Jesus already knows that the story will end in Lazarus’s resurrection. Yet despite knowing the end from the beginning, twice Jesus is “deeply moved” (Greek: embrimaomai), the first time when Mary meets him (v. 33), the second when he arrives at Lazarus’s tomb (v. 38). The answer is that Jesus was, in this moment, divinely outraged at the consequences of death in the world and humanly broken over the suffering of his friends. He not only hears and knows Mary and Martha’s experience; he is willing to experience it with them.
How Can We Properly Condescend?
In my first year of teaching, I found middle-school girls to be the furthest from my experience as a young professional man. They frankly intimidated me and I avoided them. Then one day an 8th grade girl came to school unable to remain in class. I took her aside and started hearing her story. She told me that her elderly grandfather, the person who paid for her schooling and was the only stable adult she had, was diagnosed with cancer. I listened, secure in the knowledge that God knew what he was doing in the life of my student, her grandfather, and myself. I was able to be present despite myriad concerns and worries of my own (such as feeling inadequate). I felt myself broken hearing her story, having lost close family myself due to terminal illness. And in doing so I learned that by resting secure in God’s sovereignty, being present with the hurting, and being willing to feel their pain alongside them, I could “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) and overcome the alienation that our different backgrounds of gender, income, and age initially instilled. If God himself can breach such a gulf, how much more will he enable us to do the same with one another!
D.C. Thomas is a blogger, teacher, and seminary student. He has worked in ministerial and academic contexts for fifteen years. He enjoys history, philosophy, theology, and college football. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.