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What is empathy? Empathy can be looked at from several perspectives. Empathy is:
- Understanding a person’s mental and emotional state.
- Opening yourself to feel compassion that moves you to care enough that you’d give everything you have (including your life) to help another.
- A practical fulfillment of love.
Love Makes Empathy Possible
Because God sent His son Jesus Christ to demonstrate real love, we have the power to love, too. Here is a reminder of how God defines love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV
Jesus couldn’t have endured the cross so graciously without empathy. God is a natural empathizer because God is love. Jesus modeled empathy while He walked the earth. He encouraged those who needed a boost and He wept with those who grieved.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.Romans 12: 15 ESV
Spiritual Reality Makes Empathy Possible
To be able to empathize you must understand two truths:
- No other person is your enemy; only the devil is your true enemy (Ephesians 6:12). The devil will never repent and his destiny is already determined (John 16:8-11). But your friend, your spouse, or another person in your life can come to repentance. Someone who at one point acts like your enemy could one day be your friend. God knows what this is like (Romans 5:8-10).
- Other people are broken and needy just like you. Anyone who mistreats you is doing the best they can. They don’t yet know how to love any better. Jesus acknowledged this from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV).
Struggle Makes Empathy Possible
Live can be a hard struggle. As we endure difficulty, it builds in us the ability to feel genuine compassion (2 Corinthians 1:4). Real compassion comes from the gut. It’s a longing for another person to receive God’s blessing. If you’ve ever witnessed someone suffering and desired to have the power to end their suffering, you’ve empathized!
Unfortunately, without God, we lack the power to help anyone. We are dependent upon God’s will. To move forward in life we must wait upon God to reveal His will. To see God’s will, we need light to see the truth.
We can be blind to the truth, trying to find our way through the darkness. And, the darkness can be consuming and overwhelming:
“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!Matthew 6:22-23 NLT
Thank God for His light. But when we’ve become accustomed to the dark, it can take a while to appreciate the light. We can walk in the dark which means we’ll hurt each other sometimes.
One way to combat the darkness is to develop more empathy for those God brings into your life. You can only deeply empathize with another if God’s love is working in you.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.1 John 4:7 NIV
If you’re able to empathize with another, you’re seeing them the way God sees them. It’s not possible to harbor bitterness toward someone and empathize with them at the same time. So if you want to have a better relationship, focus on growing your ability to empathize.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.