If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
When we think of empathy we are likely to think “I heard what you said” or work to understand what it is like to “walk a mile in your shoes.” We view empathy as feeling what another person is feeling, or understanding what he or she is thinking. We live in a time when we all could use a little more empathy.
Empathy is woven deep into the fabric of Scripture. Virtually every instruction God offers regarding the way we’re to treat others begins with empathy. For example, there is a story in John 11 that says, “Then Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) The first 40 verses of John 11 is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead so there was no reason for Lazarus’ loved ones to mourn. He knew that in a matter of minutes, their tears would turn to joy. Yet Jesus didn’t try to talk them out of their grief. He didn’t chide them for their lack of faith. Jesus saw people who were hurting, and it made Him hurt, too. He empathized so strongly with those who were mourning that He wept.
Jesus is empathy’s perfect example. He didn’t come to earth to save us as God, detached and gazing down in pity. He came as man, born into the trenches, to live and suffer as a human. His empathy makes Him the perfect sacrifice. The perfect bridge between God and us. The Bible tells us, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).
But we’re not Jesus. So how can we identify with others going through situations we’ve never encountered face-to-face? It starts with active listening. It’s compassion in words: “I understand your disappointment…I understand that this loss has left you confused and scared”…”I’d like to help, is there anything I can do?” Perhaps more than anything else, empathy should motivate and empower us to love. There is a greater reason for our engagement with people. God may be deliberately placing someone in your life who need not only empathy but the love of Jesus Christ. Who knows how much difference a little bit of empathy can make in somebody’s life.
- What is your definition of empathy?
- Reflect on the ways you practice empathy. Has there been a moment recently where you have showed empathy for another person, and they for you? What was the result?