Got Empathy! It's badly needed in our fallen world
by Gini Crawford
I have contemplated this devotion theme on empathy for years, so I probably should have written this years ago. As the old saying goes, "better late than never". Why now you might be wondering? Politics! I know I have people living in various countries reading my devotions. I think all would agree empathy from your government towards its people would be a huge positive. I know in my country, the United States, we could use some empathy now, starting from our government, as well as empathy to understand another's views and live united with each other. When someone uses the over said phrase "world peace" we kind of laugh because we think "how naïve." But if people would use the greatest diplomatic skill - empathy – we would start down the road of peace. In this devotion I will cover why empathy is a life-changing, powerful and healing trait we should seek to have.
What empathy means
Empathy is a psychological term which means: The ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another; it's being able to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Empathy has two parts, shared feelings and seeing other perspectives. Both parts are ways in which we make the effort to understand other people. Simply it is putting yourself in someone else's position and feeling what they must be feeling.
Empathy is entertainingly explained by the old saying, walk a mile in someone else's shoes or moccasins so that you can understand them. As you would guess, this saying means you should work to understand what another person is going through, so you can convey support. A cute illustration of walking in another's shoes is: A man walked a mile in his wife's high heels to try to understand why his wife was complaining about having to dress up for work. Needless to say, he finally understood.
While people are generally aware of their own feelings and emotions, understanding what others are going through is more difficult. However, for many people seeing another person suffering or struggling and responding with indifference or even hostility seems incomprehensible. But the fact that some people do respond in such a way clearly demonstrates that empathy is not necessarily a universal response to the struggling of others.
Even though empathy is a term used in the secular realm of psychologically, God certainly wants us to have it. This is because, it describes the type of mindset that God wants us to have. Having empathy allows us to not be so self-centered, but to be others centered to relate to what others need, and it opens our hearts to love God's way. It sounds godly, doesn't it?
Since empathy helps us to be others centered, it leads us to practice Biblical principles such as The Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), the most important commandments (Mark 12:28-31), and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). We will look at empathy from a Biblically perspective in the rest of this devotion.
The Golden Rule
If you aren't familiar with the Bible, you are probably wondering, what The Golden Rule is. Well, it isn't a ruler made of gold in some museum. The term Golden Rule is not found in Scripture, but it is the common way of referring to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.
Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. Luke 6:31 NASB1995®
If you put The Golden Rule in context from the scriptures around it in Luke, we could say its meaning is supernatural. (Luke 6:27-38). It instructs you to put yourself in another's place (have empathy), and then treat the person better than they might deserve – the way we all want to be treated.
We can have empathy towards a person but not put action with it. The Golden Rule is asking us to go the extra mile in showing a person empathy, by putting loving action to it. The Golden Rule tells us to love our enemies, to lend and not be concerned about payment, to do good to those who don't do good to us, to pardon/forgive those who you could condemn, and so on. (Luke 6:31-38).
Here are some real examples of The Golden Rule: A woman in Rwanda saw her enemy struggling and showed him empathy by forgiving him for killing her child, because she received the forgiveness she wanted from God. Years ago a neighbor lost her husband so when our other neighbor did too, she responded to her neighbor as she would appreciate, even though her neighbor was never grateful. My daughter played on a High school girls tennis team. Every year she would play doubles against another team that would clearly call the moving tennis balls out that were in, thereby winning. (Yes, at this level there were no referees.) Definitely not treating others as they would want to be treated. In the regional finals they started their normal cheating, yet this year after years of them cheating the other teams, the others who had always practiced honesty had had it and started to treat them the same way. Needless to say, these girls got so frustrated and angry they lost.
We should keep in mind we all need empathy. This is because in this fallen world we all struggle with sins, hurts, trials and setbacks that make us hard to deal with. Think of the Golden Rule this way - seek to truly feel for and understand others, and then treat them how you desire to be treated. God does promise to give you what you need to actively empathize with others. Pray to Him. (Matthew 7:7-12).
The most important commandments
Loving God is the most important command but loving others is a close second. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus is saying, that loving one another can't be separated from loving God.
"...Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He (Jesus) said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." NASB1995®
I think you would agree, human love can be very self-centered, thus lacking empathy. We can be inclined to love only when it benefits us, or when it is convenient. Sad but true, we can even love God this way.
How should we love God and others? God gave us a wonderful list of qualities on how to love His way. These are found in 1 Corinthians 13 (which is fondly called "the love chapter" in the Bible). Yes, empathy is very much in back of these qualities of love.
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails... 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a NASB1995®
How does empathy prepare us to love? Empathy leads us to understand/feel what others are going through thus making us more incline to offer unconditional love to them. Empathy opens up our awareness of what someone else's life is really like, making us more tenderhearted/compassionate towards them, instead of having an attitude of "get your act together before I will love you". Yes, empathy prepares our hearts to love God's way - unselfishly, sacrificially and unconditionally. When you lack empathy it will be harder for you to love others and God. (1 John 4:9-12, 18-21).
The fruit of the Spirit
God gave us a handy list called "the fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22-23, so we can check our lives to see if we are being led by His Spirit, or by our own flesh (our sinful desires). Empathy opens your heart/mind up so the Spirit can give you His character (fruit) to be there for others.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control ... If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit ... Galatians 5:22-25 NASB1995®
Having empathy makes you concerned for the well-being of others, as God is. I have seen how God has used empathy in my life to soften my heart towards people that are trying, unpleasant, even hostile, so I show them kindness, love, goodness, patience and so on, and not hardheartedness. Ask the Holy Spirit to make empathy a strong mindset/response/trait in your life, and He will. I have seen empathy change many people's lives in a marvelous way.
Empathy, a Christian must
Christians should have empathy towards each other. Empathy helps us walk through life as Jesus would – thinking of others. As you would guess, empathy is a trait that brings healing to relationships and to our souls. In the reverse, if you don't have empathy, I believe you are on a slippery path to sin, especially in relationships.
I believe one of the main reasons a Christian church is unloving and unkind is that they don't practice empathy. If the people in the church, starting with its leaders, aren’t willing to try to recognize or understand a person's struggles, the church can easily develop a judgmental and cruel attitude in dealing with others. Without empathy, people tend to only see other people's sins or shortcomings, and forget they too are sinners with shortcomings (Luke 6:31, 35-42). I have experienced lack of empathy in a church and I know many others who have too. It is never an uplifting and encouraging scenario, but an unloving perhaps even hurtful experience.
There are many books on how build a church, and I would imagine many are very good. However, if the people of a church would have empathy, that church would be loving and I would say, probably healthy. Yes, all Christians need to have empathy.
Empathy keeps me heading down God's path
I am so grateful for the trait of empathy in my life. It has allowed me to respond to people in a gracious way, even hard to deal with people. Empathy helps my attitude to be loving and encouraging instead of impatient, angry, unkind or unloving (Ephesians 4:31-32). I can be short and to the point, not particularly loving, when I see someone deserves what they are getting from their sinful actions. Yet, empathy whispers in my mind, "Gini, don't forget the trials that person has had. You are a sinner too, needing compassion and grace."
I have a friend who is having an affair and is very hurt that others don't want anything to do with her. I understand not wanting to have anything to do with her, but empathy has allowed me to have the fruit of the Spirit in the relationship so I can lovingly share God's truth with her. Empathy has also allowed me through the years: To be kind to a person that has hurt me; To forgive even a relational betrayal, because I understand I am a sinner too needing mercy and forgiveness; To generously help a person who has never even tried to help me, because I can put myself in her pain.
Jesus is our best example of empathy
Have you ever considered God is our best example of empathy? Jesus Christ willingly went from the supremacy of His glorified state as the One True God, to the humiliating state of a man where He let go of His glory and rights but not His deity,, so He could fully empathize with us in this fallen world (Philippians 2:6-8, Hebrews 4:14-16). I feel a lot of people don't really comprehend or even recognize the incredible humiliation that Jesus undertook to deal with us, our sins and to be able to truly empathize with us. I am thinking it would be very fruitful to make sure we have empathy for our loving and very empathetic God. Agreed?
How many times have you felt no one understands you? I know I can feel this way. Yet, you and I need to remember, God knows everything about us, even our thoughts and feelings – He created us - He knew we needed His constant empathy (Psalm 139:1-18, John 11:33-36). Jesus was thinking of you and me and our needs when He died on the cross (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:1-10). Where would we be if Jesus didn't have empathy for us?
...fixing our eyes on Jesus, ...who for the joy set before Him(us) endured the cross, despising the shame... Hebrews 12:2 NASB1995®
My two grandmothers both lost their mothers when they were young, as I did. Instead of having sympathy or even pity towards what I was going through, and they should have, both lacked empathy. In other words, they were indifferent to what I was going through, when they should have been the opposite. Just as my grandmothers were, we can all lack empathy if we willy-nilly go about life only thinking about ourselves.
Fortunately, empathy is a skill that you can learn and strengthen. The Holy Spirit is living within you as a Christian, so you do have a Helper Who will help you have empathy for - your mother, son, aunt, friend, employee, neighbor and so on. Read John 14:26, 16:13, Acts 1:8, Romans 8:26-27. Go to Him in prayer and He will open your mind and heart to the person's struggles and needs (empathy) and strengthen you to love and care for that person.
Here are some practical ways you can develop empathy:
- Questions and truly listening: Listening and asking questions is the best way to get to understand a person. Yet, we all fail to listen at times, don't we? So mentally ask yourself, can I summarize what the person just told me? If you can't summarized what they just told you – listen better. You will know how personal you can get with questions by your closeness to the person and by watching their non-verbal reactions to you. If they look bored or annoyed, try another angle. Ask the Spirit to help you to truly listen to the person, and to give you wisdom to ask the right questions, to understand them and their feelings - to be empathetic. Read Proverbs 1:1-7, Luke 11:9-13, 1 Corinthians 2:12-16, 4:5.
- Judge with empathy-humility: Christians are to judge the sin around them, so we can deal with it in our own lives and in others, in a godly manner. Yet, we shouldn't have a harsh judgmental attitude but a humble-empathetic attitude towards others even if they are in sin. Sometimes people can do something so stupid or evil that it is hard not to be judgmental-critical-condemning. However, the Spirit is always with you, He knows the person better than you, so ask Him to help you not be judgmental but to understand and share the person's feelings-struggles and prayerfully help them. Read Matthew 7:1-12, Luke 6:27-42, Galatians 6:1-10.
- Empathy of God: Knowing that the God of the universe has absolute empathy towards you, should give you the motivation and desire to give others empathy. Read Psalm 139, Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 John 4:9-11. Ponder this about God's empathy towards us: God knew we were His enemies, yet He gave us what He knew we needed - His forgiveness. When God had every right to be angry at us and punish us, He understood how helpless we were, so took the punishment we deserved upon Himself. When we are determined to love and serve everyone and everything other than our God, He understood we tended to be unfaithful and selfish but loved us unconditionally anyway.
Yes, you have abundant empathy from God that resulted in Him giving His life for you. So I believe you can follow His example and have empathy towards others. Believe me, I know some people can be so ungrateful-unreasonable-mean that it's hard to want to see why they might have a reason to be like they are. Yet, God can empower you to empathize with the person so you can absolutely help and even love the person. Remember we all can be hard to love. Make a list of people who you find hard to empathize with and ask Jesus to empower you to understand and love them. Read Ephesians 5:1-2.
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