The Christian Virtue of Empathy

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. (Romans 12:15–16a)

Empathy is the key that can unlock the door to our kindness and compassion.[1]

As I was scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a post that broke my heart. A woman had just found out the baby she was carrying had died. I was filled with grief for this sister in Christ and for her family. Why did I feel such pain for a woman I’ve never even met? Even though we’re not friends or family, I can relate to what she’s going through because of my own experiences. I can empathize with her because I know what it’s like to lose a baby.

What is empathy? The word was introduced in the early 1900s as a translation for the German word Einfühlung. Empathy is a combination of two Greek words, “em” and “pathos,” which together mean “in feeling.”[2] Empathy is “a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.”[3]

The meaning of empathy and how it’s used has shifted some over the years, and not everyone agrees on a universal definition:

The social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, who has researched empathy for decades, argues that the term can now refer to eight different concepts: knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; adopting the posture of another; actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; and projecting oneself into another’s situation.[2]

Several of these concepts overlap each other. For example, when I empathized with the woman who had lost her baby, I was imagining her thoughts and feelings, remembering my own feelings in that situation, feeling distressed for her suffering, and feeling both pity and compassion for her. All of these are appropriate Christian responses for the pain and suffering another person is experiencing.

What can the Scriptures teach us about empathy? Consider Jesus in his life, ministry, and death. Jesus, our Mediator, had to be both God and man to redeem us. He had to take on our human nature so that he could obey the law for us, suffer and intercede for us, and “have a fellow feeling of our infirmities.”[4]

As Hebrews 4:15 explains, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus, our great High Priest, knows what it means to be human. He can relate to our suffering because He lived and suffered and experienced the same struggles we do, without sin of course.

We see in several passages the compassion Jesus demonstrated for those around Him. Matthew 9:36 says, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” In Luke 7, Jesus saw the funeral procession for a widow’s only son. Verse 13 says, “When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” And then He raised her son from the dead.

Another clear picture of Jesus’s empathy and compassion is found in John 11 when He raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’s friends Mary and Martha sent for Him because their brother, Lazarus, was very sick. When He arrived, after Lazarus had already died, He met with Martha and Mary. And what did Jesus do next? He wept (John 11:35).

Jesus knew that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew that Mary and Martha’s suffering was going to end in joy momentarily. He knew exactly what was going to happen. And yet, He was so deeply moved that He wept with these dear sisters. He entered into their suffering and shared with them the pain of death and separation. And that’s what He calls us to as well: to empathize with those around us.

We’re called to share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters. In Romans 12:15, Paul tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We’re also called to compassion. As 1 Peter 3:8 says, “All of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous.” And we’re called to comfort each other. We learn to comfort each other from God “who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 2:4).

Empathy, recognizing and sharing the emotions of others, leads us to have compassion on others because we know what it means to suffer. Even if we haven’t experienced the same exact type of suffering, we’ve all been through painful circumstances. We can relate to the suffering around us, and then share the comfort and hope we’ve received from the Lord. In doing so, we are knit together as the body of Christ.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ…God has so composed the body…so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1 Cor. 12:12, 24–26)

Notes

  1. ^ “What does the Bible say about empathy?” https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-empathy.html.
  2. a, b Susan Lanzoni, “A Short History of Empathy,” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/a-short-history-of-empathy/409912/.
  3. ^ Neel Burton, “Empathy vs. Sympathy,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy.
  4. ^ Westminster Larger Catechism, question 39.

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