Whatever Happened to Empathy?
I never thought of myself as especially empathetic. Yet even I am dismayed at the lack of empathy exhibited in our culture, on the news, and especially on social media.
Empathy has been defined as the ability to understand and feel what someone else is feeling or experiencing without requiring an explanation. And a simple observation of our culture reveals empathy is on the express road to extinction.
Whether the topic is face masks, racial injustice, or almost anything else, our culture has deteriorated to a me-first perspective that leaves no room for how our opinions affect anyone else.
Should Christians Care?
The word empathy is not in the Bible. So if it’s not biblical, why should Christians care?
The word trinity is also not in the Bible, yet the concept of the Trinity is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. The same goes for empathy. While the word may not appear, the concept and principles of empathy flow through Scripture. Just a few examples from the ESV translation:
- “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
- “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Corinthians 12:26).
- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8).
Not only should we care about being empathetic, according to the Bible, empathy is a mark of a Christian.
So why aren’t we all more empathetic?
Empathy is Unnatural and Costly
Our natural response to the fall of an enemy is to rejoice. He got what he deserves. What goes around comes around. But Proverbs 24:17 tells us, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
Job described his empathy for others as something to be credited to him, implying that this was not a common reaction: “Did not I weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the needy?” (Job 30:25).
And over and over again in the epistles, we find commands to be empathetic:
- “be tenderhearted” (Ephesians 4:32)
- “have sympathy” (I Peter 3:8)
- “love one another” (John 15:12)
- “put on . . . compassionate hearts” (Colossians 3:12)
Why commands? Because empathy doesn’t come naturally. If it did, we wouldn’t need a command! It’s also humbling (Philippians 2:3), an experience few—if any of us—enjoy.
And empathy doesn’t come naturally because it’s risky. Empathy will cost us emotionally and financially (I John 3:17). It means putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2:4) which might even lead to laying down our life for others (I John 3:16).
So Why is Empathy Important?
God’s purpose for us is to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). And among all the reasons in support of empathy, the most important one is that cultivating empathy makes us more like Christ:
- “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36).
- “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept” (John 11:33-35).
- “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
So the next time you and I have an opportunity to be empathetic by giving up our rights or sacrificing our comfort and convenience, let’s remind ourselves God is working His purposes in us to make us more like Jesus!
What opportunities do you have today to be empathetic?