In my seminary class, one of the topics we recently studied was empathy. As you probably know, empathy is more than just listening. Empathy is entering into the feelings of another person. Have you ever had someone who was going through a difficult time come and pour out their heart to you? How did you respond? If you were able to feel the person’s feelings and emotions, then you probably were able to empathize with them. Sometimes I think empathy can be hard for us. Because more than just listening or comprehending, it requires us to connect with something in ourselves that has felt what the other person is feeling. This is hard because we’re wired to avoid feelings of pain or grief, whether ours or someone else’s.
Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman outlines four attributes of empathy:
- The ability to adopt the perspective of another person;
- To be non-judgmental;
- Recognize the emotions and feelings in another person;
- To communicate the understanding of that person’s feelings.
I think empathy is an important skill for us in the church. As we go through Philippians on Sunday mornings, we can see that one of the major themes is unity. The Apostle Paul says to the believers “having the same love, be one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). How can we be one if we cannot empathize and come alongside each other? Good friends empathize with each other. In John 11, Jesus went to Bethany and found that his good friend Lazarus had died. This made him sad. When he also saw Mary mourning, he empathized. John 11:33-35 says “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.”
When we see people grieving or in pain, sometimes we sympathize. We feel for them. But sympathy is different from empathy. Sympathy involves understanding from our own perspective, not the other person’s. It tends to keep the other person’s feelings at arms-length. We feel for them but we don’t feel with them. They say one of the key differences between empathy and sympathy is that empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. I recognize how difficult this is. I’ve been in a couple of meetings (non-church) this week where a person was just overcome with emotion. In these trying times, I get the feeling that you and I will have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s empathy with one another. Let us be faithful! Romans 12:15 says “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.”