We're taught about it at university and we're encouraged to cultivate it in our practice. Yet, how easy it is for my co-workers and I to disregard empathy entirely and focus on our own presumptions and judgements.
How often do we find these same symptoms in our relationships with fellow Christians? We are called to love and have compassion for one another, yet again how easy it is to get caught up living our own life without much thought of those around us.
Our God knew us even before we were in our mothers’ wombs (Jeremiah 1:5). We only need to read Psalm 139 to realise that He knows the depths of all our thoughts and feelings. Indeed, He observes our pain with tender compassion - "You have taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?" (Psalm 56:8 NASB).
"Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:13-14 NASB).
As God's creatures we too have the capacity to empathise. Empathy can be described as "the ability to understand another person's feelings and experiences" (Oxford Dictionary). Though the word itself does not appear in Scripture, the concept of empathy is evident throughout.
Compassion, pity and sympathy are all words used in the Bible and, along with empathy, are all to do with having passionate feelings for another due to their suffering. My experience has been that where there is empathy this leads to compassion, which is linked with a desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It demands action. If I can truly understand a person's point of view or emotions, then how can I not be moved to act upon this, either in prayer or in practical or emotional support?
“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17 NASB).
I tend to find it easy to ‘switch off’, and in my line of work this is considered valuable. However, in my life in general, as I interact with and have relationships with both believers and unbelievers, 'switching off' is neither valuable nor biblical. Though it serves me well when returning home after a tough day in the office, God does not want me 'switched off' to the emotions and needs of those around me.
"Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12 NASB).
What I’ve learned from both my work and personal experience is that you don’t need to have faced the exact same situation as someone to be able to empathise with them. At its roots, empathy boils down to emotion. Feelings of sadness, shame, heartache, anxiety, as well as joy, happiness and contentment. Most of us have experienced these feelings at some point, albeit perhaps in different forms and at different levels of severity. We can use our experience of these feelings to draw alongside and share in another person’s circumstances.
Normally we focus solely on empathy being directed towards those who are suffering and in pain, but the Bible says we should have empathy for those who are rejoicing too!
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 ESV)
Isn’t it good to know that we can join in with happy, joyful feelings as well as sombre ones! Reflecting on this, though, puts into perspective times when I’ve felt passive or even jealous of another person’s achievements or happiness. Putting myself in the other’s shoes and acknowledging how they must be feeling should cause me to rejoice with my brother or sister in Christ!
I'm drawn to the book of Hebrews when thinking about empathy. Hebrews 4:15 NASB tells us that "we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin." He lived a human life, with its pain and suffering. He experienced intense emotions whilst here: sadness, anger, exhaustion, joy. His is ultimate empathy. We are yet touched by sin and the world and are not omniscient as He is, yet we can strive to have this quality in our lives, even as a dim reflection of His perfect empathy. We know the blessing and comfort it is to have Christ as our Great High Priest, who knows our needs and moves to meet them. Let us, too, seek to be that comfort to those around us.
In days of peace and days of rest
In times of loss and loneliness
Though rich or poor, Your word is true
That all my ways are known to You