The Effectiveness of Empathy

We probably know what it feels like when someone responds to our pain or hardship with words and actions that make us feel erased, discounted, or devalued.  On the other hand, hopefully we all have experienced someone moving closer to us in our hurt.

We feel seen, known, and affirmed. We feel connected.

When we see someone hurting, we can have one of several responses:

Apathy avoids it.

Sympathy sees it.

Empathy feels it.

Compassion does something about it.

Jesus calls us to move toward others with compassion, but compassion is impossible without empathy. Empathy is our next step in leaning in, and here’s why we do it:

God is empathetic toward us.

Throughout scripture, we see God moving toward us with compassion. In Jesus, we have the ultimate example of God’s compassion toward us. In John 11:32-36, Jesus arrives at the scene of Lazarus’ tomb. Mary and Martha are understandably upset, and when Jesus sees them, we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come alongside her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” When he saw the tomb, “Jesus wept.

Jesus knew exactly what he was planning to do in raising Lazarus. He could have told them to stop crying, to watch what he was going to do instead, but he allowed their pain to enter his heart and he wept with them. God’s posture toward us is one of deep empathy that moves him to compassion.

God calls us to be empathetic people

As believers, our lives are meant to be a reflection of who God is, his character and his ways. We see this call to be empathetic like him through scripture. Here are a few examples:

Bear One Another’s Burdens (Gal 6:2)

Suffer Together (1 Cor. 12:26)

Put on Compassion (Col 3:12-14)

Rejoice with the Rejoicers (Rom 12:15)

Mourn with the Mourners (Rom 12:15)

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says that God comforts us so that we can comfort others. His compassion is meant to lead us to compassion.  Empathy is not something you have or don’t have. Empathy is a skill anyone can learn.

So how do we practice empathy?

Begin with yourself

How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we do not love ourselves as God does? How do you respond to your heart when you are hurting, or going through a hard time? Are you harsh and dismissive, or do you put on a brave face and minimize your pain?

Instead, we are called to speak to ourselves the way God does, with compassion, grace, and acceptance. When we treat ourselves as undeserving of God’s love, we will withhold it from others unless we think they are deserving. None of us deserves it, but God gives it freely and we are called to give freely too.

Everyone has a story that is worth knowing

What we think and say and do we come by honestly. There’s a story behind all of it. If I knew your story, I might not agree with you, but I could understand you better, and vice versa. We must enter others’ stories.

Create space for others’ stories

Here’s an A-F of practices to help us do this:

Ask questions (if you don’t know what to ask, just say, “Tell me more”)

Be slow to speak

Check your own heart (if you don’t recognize what is being stirred in you, you are likely to speak out of it without thinking)

Don’t judge, defend, justify or excuse (these are often ways to avoid feeling others’ pain)

Echo their words and emotions (i.e. “what I hear you saying is...” or “it sounds like...”)

Feel with them (find common ground in the emotions behind their experience)

Empathy tells us we are not alone. Others are willing to walk with us. This is what we are called to as a church. We lean in to others stories and walk with them. As we practice empathy, and it moves us to compassion, we have the power to heal and change our world.

Questions for reflection:

Are you experiencing God’s compassion for you?

Do you speak compassionately to yourself in hard times?

Whose story do you need to hear?

What empathy practice do you feel called to use more this week?