Mike Bond, Director of Children’s Ministries at Church on Mill, writes for us here about empathy: what it is, how to grow in it, and why we struggle with it.
Whatever your current stage of life, over the past six months it has become more challenging. Being single is more difficult. Having a spouse and children is more difficult. Managing health issues is more difficult. Being a kid, a student, a boss, an employee, a senior adult, a friend, a church member – all of these have become much more difficult as we navigate the unknowns of this pandemic-ridden, polarized, political world.
One unfortunate by-product of this altered reality is exacerbated self-focus. When our circumstances become more trying, we naturally tend to focus on them more, which can cause us to focus less on others around us. If we are not careful, we can easily become insensitive to the needs, concerns, and feelings of the people around us – especially those who don’t share our specific circumstances, perspective, or opinions.
God gave us a tool for serving others and severing sinful self-focus: our capacity to empathize. Some of us are more naturally inclined toward empathy and some of us are not, but we all have it in us to empathize. However strong this ability may naturally be in us, growing in this area is essential to living out the gospel well.
Empathy is the ability to discern and experience the thoughts and feelings of another person – to feel what others feel.Empathy allows us to recognize and share the emotions and distress of others, increasing our compassion for them, which then compels us to act in love and grace for their good.
As followers of Christ, empathy is not only a helpful approach, it is imperative. Why? Because Jesus is our Lord and our standard, and he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He is the most empathetic human that ever lived (Isaiah 53:4).
The cross is central to this. Jesus took on our punishment, not excusing it, but rather entering into the suffering we deserve because of our sin. God is even known as the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3) to his wayward people.
For an example of how he met with sufferers, think about what Jesus did in John 11. Jesus came to see Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus had died. He saw the two sisters, friends, and family grieving, and was deeply moved and troubled (John 11:33). Then, he wept, too. Whether his weeping is rooted primarily in sadness or anger is debated, but either way it is empathetic. He felt their pain with them. Before he acted, he took the time to grieve with them. Empathy was his first response.
God’s word is full of commands for us to show the same empathy to each other. (Col. 3:12, John 13:34-35, Eph. 5:12, Phil. 2:1-2, 1 Pet. 3:8 to name a few). Romans 12:15 tells us to “Rejoice with those rejoice, weep with those who weep.” So, our motive for empathy should both to imitate Christ and obey his word.
Equipped to Empathize
To truly empathize with another, we must know and understand the situation they are in as they see it and meet in the place where they are at. To do this, we’ve already been equipped with abilities and tools that God has given us.
Observe When we look carefully, we can often see the distress of another. When we listen to others, we can often hear an essence of their pain, fear, anxiety, or loneliness. When we use our Spirit-led instincts, we can sometimes discern when something is just not right with someone. All of this means taking the focus off of ourselves while we direct our full attention to the people we are around.
Pray Any attempt you make to understand others and empathize with them must be grounded in God’s wisdom, grace, and love. We need the Holy Spirit’s power to serve others well.
Engage It is tempting to watch from afar when another unlike ourselves is suffering. Differing life stages, ethnicities, ages, political affiliations, education levels, economic statuses, life stages, or any other differences tempt us to pull away instead of engaging. Take a step toward someone you know might have a struggle even if you think you are too different to offer help.
Listen Once we engage, we have one long and glorious job: listen. Then listen some more, and then listen better. Engage in active listening. Paraphrase what you think you hear to give them the opportunity to correct your listening. Avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. Ask questions that clarify and that encourage elaboration about what the other person thinks and feels. Resist the temptation to interject opinions and feelings. Listen until you are certain you understand the other person’s perspective and feelings.
Feel As they share, rejoice with them if they are rejoicing, weep with them if they are weeping. If you don’t feel any pull toward them in their joy or pain, pray as they are talking for compassion to fill your heart.
Lament This is the biblical means of addressing grief, hardship, pain, injustice, disappointment, disillusionment and despair. Take their situation to God with them in a prayer of lament, helping them cry out to God and become aware of his presence and his promises to his people. The Psalms and the book of Lamentations are great places to learn about how lament works.
Remember The gospel is only truth there is and has the power to heal and to reconcile all things (Romans 1:16). Jesus is the evidence that God is with us in every suffering. We often can’t explain what someone is going through, but we can always remember that Jesus suffers with us, even in those things which are a consequence of our own sin. He is the only one who can help and heal. Remember this, and do not try to be Jesus. Help them remember him, too, and the specific ways he understands their situation while others cannot.
Help Once you understand what someone thinks and feels, you can act appropriately with love and grace for their good, trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide you as you do so.
Yield This includes yielding your convenience, resources, and pride. Loving others is time consuming, humbling, messy, risky, and costly. But not anywhere near as much as it was for Jesus to love each of us.
The Enemies of Empathy
As with everything holy and good, Christian empathy is bound to have outspoken enemies. Why are we not understanding and compassionate toward our brothers and sisters?
Pride Empathy is impossible without humility. Shortly after Paul tells us to weep with those who weep in Romans, he says “Never be wise in your sight” (Rom. 12:16b). Our tendency to see ourselves as always right in our perspective, our opinions, and our understanding suppresses our empathy and causes us to look down on the trials of others. That’s why Philippians 2:3-4 instructs us to “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Pride can lead us to apathy, in which we don’t feel the weight of any problem except our own. It can also lead us to defensiveness, in which we are more concerned with finding an opportunity to express and defend our point of view than with empathizing. If we don’t lay down our own agendas, opinions, and experiences and really listen to others, we won’t be able to empathize.
Fear Anxiety always focuses our thoughts toward ourselves and so interferes with our ability to empathize with others. There are fears that simply consume us and tempt us to ignore others completely. There are also fears of saying the wrong thing, inadequacy, being misunderstood or rejected, or of become embroiled in someone else’s problems and emotions. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” We must rely on the Holy Spirit in us to overcome our fear and love others in his power.
Empathy Leads to Life
God wants to use our ability to empathize to grow our love for people and for him. He wants to use empathy for others to move us from self-serving to self-sacrificing, so that people can see him working through us for his glory. Notice that for Jesus, empathy was never just feeling sad; it was a display of the gospel in which he showed others that he was willing to walk with them through the horrors of sin and suffering to lead them to life in him. He did not simply wallow in emotion with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother. He took on every consequence of sin on the cross and was truly forsaken by the father that Lazarus might live again not only mortally, but eternally. How instructive this is for us. May we be willing to walk through others’ darkness that they might see the light of Christ.