Sharing God’s great gift of empathy
Most people go through life feeling alone. We may be surrounded by large crowds and people who care for us. We may intellectually know that God is always with us. Yet we can still feel lonely inside and silently long for a deeper connection with our fellow human beings. God calls each of His followers to step into that gap and be His vessels of empathy for one another; able to humbly feel for and show tenderhearted compassion towards each other.
1 Peter 3:8 ESV Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
We are all biologically wired to empathise with others through an area of our brains called the anterior insular cortex. This insular cortex gives us the ability to see the world through other people’s perspectives and feel what they are feeling. We are able to become one with someone else’s distress and feel what they are feeling and know what they are really thinking. Empathy is not just the ability to intellectually understand what they are going through. Empathy goes beyond that and experiences it with them as well. We will rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It is the basis for the powerful human connection we all long for.
Romans 12:10,15-16 ESV Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
The importance of empathy as Christ followers
Empathy is a picture of God’s great love, grace and compassion for all of us. God has demonstrated this many times throughout the Bible, and perhaps most powerfully when Jesus wept together with those who mourned the death of Lazarus (John 11:17-44).
John 11:33,35 ESV When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Jesus wept.
By empathising with and bearing each other’s burdens, we too fulfil the “law of Christ”.
Galatians 6:2 ESV Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
We live in a world where any display of vulnerable feelings is considered socially unacceptable or weak. We are told to “put your best face forward” and “take care of yourself first.” It is as the Bible warned, that in the last days, people will be “lovers of self”, “proud”, and “heartless” – all qualities that do not promote empathy.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 ESV But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
This pattern can also infect the Christian community. We can profess to love God who is full of compassion and mercy. Yet when we don’t follow His example of showing tenderhearted empathy to those who are suffering, hurt or lost, we merely show an “appearance of godliness”, but not its power to love others as God does.
Without exercising empathy, we can be prone to view other people’s struggles superficially and not truly understand what they are going through on the inside. No matter how small or bizarre their issues may look to us, everyone’s pain, shame, and self-condemnation is very real to them. If we are not careful, Satan will tempt us to sweep their emotions to one side and give them advice to “pray more,” “try harder,” “count your blessings,” or “just move on” – thereby deepening the sense of disconnection they already feel. We can come across as uncaring and ungracious, even though that is not our intention.
Showing empathy requires us to set aside our own ways. It is an act of humility, self-sacrifice, patience, and kindness. Sometimes, experiencing empathy is all someone needs to get back on their feet. The gift of empathy is a powerful one.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Empathy can be corrupted
Those of us with the gift of empathy, mercy, or compassion have an XL-sized capacity from God to feel. Figuratively speaking, it is as if we have been given two vessels in our hearts – one for our own feelings and another to feel the emotions of other people. This allows us to empathise with others without becoming overwhelmed – if we use our gift correctly.
1. Rejecting the gift
Some of us can end up using both vessels for our own emotions. As a result, we experience emotional overloads whenever there is any hint of rejection or ridicule. When we have not yet learnt how to understand this gift, we can find it hard to distinguish the feelings of other people from our own. Over time, we may dislike, avoid, or reject our feelings and decide that:
- “I have to close my heart in order to protect myself.”
- “I can’t trust people again. I need to avoid them.”
- “I can’t share what I sense through empathy in case people reject me.”
- “This pain is so intense, I might as well die.”
- “God didn’t protect my feelings. He doesn’t care.”
We may even reject ourselves.
2. Turning empathy inwards, instead of outwards
Alternatively, we may turn our capacity to empathise inwards on ourselves. We form an unhealthy pattern of being led by our feelings and find it hard to follow God’s truths.
- “My feelings are always right. They show me the truth. I feel lonely today. Therefore, I must be abandoned by people and by God.”
- “I live with such intense feelings that no one can really understand or connect with me.”
- “I only feel alive when I can perceive some sensational or exciting emotion.”
- “These feelings are so painful, I must be a victim, not a conqueror in Christ.”
Romans 8:37-39 ESV No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
3. Manipulating the gift for ourselves
When our compassion is not guided by the Holy Spirit, we can unknowingly use our ability to read another person’s emotional state of mind to influence them to go along with our fleshly agendas. We may even think we are doing something good in the name of “helping”, “caring”, or “seeking justice” when we are in reality, trying to get people to follow us instead of following God. We use the gift for our own benefit because we know exactly how other people think or feel. Such motivations are ungodly.
- “I can easily manipulate and control people because I know exactly what they are thinking or feeling.”
- “Based on what they are really thinking or feeling, I feel more righteous than them.”
- “Why can’t other people have the ability to feel like I do? They are so limited.”
4. Developing unhealthy relationships
Another way the gift of empathy can be corrupted is when we allow ourselves to fall into a pattern of empathising with others so much that we lose sight of who we are. We can even form ungodly relationships or fascinations with those we empathise with.
- “I feel these emotions from that person. He or she must also do the same for me.”
- “I find this person’s feelings and thoughts fascinating. I can’t stop thinking about him or her.”
- “I can feel so much of that person’s emotions, I must be in love with him/her.”
Presenting our gift of empathy to God for His use
God gave us our empathetic thoughts and feelings for a purpose. To reject this gift would be to reject a part of who God made us to be. Eventually, it can feel like a form of spiritual death.
If we choose to present our gift of empathy for God’s use, however, we can witness the Holy Spirit do amazing things through us.
Romans 12:1 ESV I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
1. Bring our emotions to God
Those of us with the gift of empathy may have been told that we are too “sensitive” or too “soft” – and feel misunderstood or rejected as a result.
Thankfully, we can go to our Creator and tell Him how much this hurts, because He is the One who gave us our gift of empathy in the first place. Our Father in heaven is tender and compassionate, and He celebrates our “sensitive” emotional side, regardless of what other people say. He will never turn us away when we humbly lay our hearts down to Him for His restoration. We can flush out all our stressful emotions to God and invite Him to comfort us. God takes our feelings very seriously and even keeps track of our sorrows and collects our tears.
Psalm 34:17-18 ESV When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
Psalm 56:8 NLT You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.
2. Invite God to cleanse our hearts regularly
Those of us with the gift of empathy will find that we need to invite God to search our hearts more often than others.
Psalm 139:23-24 NLT Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Why do we feel these negative emotions or thoughts – are they ours or someone else’s? Have we misused our gift of empathy to feel sorry for ourselves? Have we been dwelling on our emotions a little too long? Have we been renewing our minds with God’s Word? Have we been using this gift to glorify God?
The Holy Spirit can help us test and cleanse our hearts as we release any toxic emotions to Him. When we stop and do a “sanity check” more regularly, God will show us how to moderate our emotions and practise greater self-control, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Once we feel strengthened by the Holy Spirit, He will enable us to forgive those who have been insensitive towards us in Jesus’ name. This is not about agreeing with the thoughtless things that people say or do. After all, God will hold all of us accountable on Judgment Day for every careless word we speak. Forgiveness is about releasing ourselves from the grip of their hurtful words and actions.
Matthew 12:36 ESV I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,
Importantly, we do this to honour God. He calls us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Otherwise, we will corrupt our gift of empathy by showing compassion to ourselves but not towards other people’s faults.
Colossians 3:13 NLT Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
Also, see The importance of emotional healing
4. Check who unfamiliar thoughts and feelings belong to
The gift of empathy is one that requires discernment. We can at times, feel unfamiliar emotions and think thoughts that come out of nowhere. These are not likely to be our own. In such instances, it is necessary to ask the Holy Spirit who they are from. God could be alerting us to someone that is feeling suicidal, hopeless, or depressed that He would like us to bring some comfort or restoration to.
It can be deeply encouraging and reassuring for someone who is hurting to hear that God prompted someone else to reach out to them because He cared about them enough to let someone know what they were going through. God will show us who to reach out to and encourage or comfort.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
5. Exercise the gift to also discern between spirits
God’s Word explains that we are all given spiritual gifts, one of which is the ability to distinguish between spirits. We are given the ability to discern between the work of the Holy Spirit and evil spirits, as well as between different evil spirits.
1 Corinthians 12:8-10 ESV For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
The Bible, for example, lists some evil spirits that specialise in ungodly emotions such as fear, jealousy, and despair.
- Spirit of fear | 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
- Spirit of jealousy | Numbers 5:14 ESV and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself,
- Spirit of despair | Isaiah 61:3 NIV … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…
God’s Spirit, on the other hand, is a Spirit of peace, love, and joy.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
With the gift of empathy, we can enter into what someone is experiencing from an external perspective and identify certain emotions, and therefore, also distinguish between spirits. We can encourage them by pointing out that some of their experiences are not from God, and encourage them to seek the Holy Spirit’s help and deliverance and pray for them.
Philippians 1:19-20 ESV …I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
6. Seek God’s counsel
Next, we simply need to ask, “Holy Spirit, what would You like me to do with what You are showing me?” As we follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there will always be a sense of peace and purpose, not despair, envy, or bitterness.
John 14:26-27 ESV But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
7. Step out in faith more often
It may be a new experience for some of us to exercise our gift of empathy for the first time. Nonetheless, God’s love will move us to set out in faith to show that we care for someone, regardless of his or her response. Our empathy will most certainly be well-received when we are led by the Holy Spirit, rather than by our fleshly or intellectual responses.
8. Point to Jesus, be careful not to promote hopelessness
Let us remain calm, restrained, and objective at all times. The gift of empathy is about reflecting God’s compassion, not magnify the gloom or hopelessness someone feels. Neither should we unintentionally promote ungodly self-pity, complaining, gossip, or slander.
Proverbs 17:27 NIV The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
9. Remember not to bring others’ emotions back with us
When someone is “in a dark hole”, there is the danger that we can get dragged down with them if we try to pull them out with our own strength. It is Jesus who lifts people out of their distress. The best we can do for them (and for ourselves) is to encourage them to turn to Jesus, their perfect Saviour. Otherwise, we will become overwhelmed by the weight of the burdens that are meant for Jesus.
Just as we enter the darkness that people are suffering to encourage them to look at Jesus, we also need to exit and “dis-engage” emotionally and spiritually afterwards. Otherwise, we may remain tied to their darkness instead of God’s marvellous light.
2 Corinthians 6:14 ESV Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
1 John 1:5 ESV This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
Also, see Helping emotionally draining people
Empathy can be learnt
For those of us who would like to expand our capacity for empathy, thank God that this is something we can “put on” with His help.
Colossians 3:12-13 ESV Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another …
1. Be careful not to be trapped by worldly teachings
We live in a world that does not promote empathy. We are encouraged to be rational and not feel, and to mind our own business. Here are some other worldly patterns of thinking:
- “We shouldn’t cry with those who cry, people may think we are weird.”
- “I already have so much on my own plate to handle. Why take on more?”
- “Why can’t other people just suck it up and get on with their lives?”
- “It is okay to express happiness, anger or indifference, but not vulnerable emotions.”
- “Being strong means being stoic and calm. There is no need to react irrationally or emotionally.”
- “I will look stupid if I tell someone what I am sensing about them.”
The Bible reminds us not to copy the behaviour and customs of this world. Instead, we are to let God transform the way we think. Let us put down and repent of the worldly thinking patterns that block our hearts from expressing genuine empathy.
Romans 12:2 ESV Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Also, see Why we struggle to love perfectly.
2. Ask God for the gift of empathy
Next, let us ask our Creator to soften our hearts to become more empathetic so we become more like Him. Empathy is one of many godly qualities that “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” who transforms us more and more into the image of Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
3. Set aside our judgments and presumptions
When we first begin, we may not fully understand or experience what someone is thinking or feeling. Nonetheless, it is important to set aside any of our presumptions and resist the temptation to dish out solutions. Neither of these build empathy. Empathy is a matter of the heart, not the intellect.
4. Practise, practise, practise
Empathy can be developed with practice as long as we try to keep some things in mind.
Philippians 2:3 ESV Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
- Be there to give someone our full attention. Set aside all distractions.
- Avoid making the conversation about us.
- Use encouraging words such as, “I’m so glad you shared this with me. I’m here for you.”
- Articulate how they must feel, “That must feel so disappointing / painful / hurtful / frightening / confusing / shocking etc.”
- Don’t be afraid to stay in the moment with someone, so as to feel or think they are experiencing. We can laugh or cry with them.
- Listen more than we speak. Sometimes, we may not need to say anything at all. Just our presence and willingness to empathise can be enough.
- Be careful not to ask anyone to “look at the bright side” or ask them many questions about how they ended up where they are – when they are clearly suffering and in no mood to justify or explain themselves.
- Join them in their pain and acknowledge their need to grieve or go through an emotional journey.
- God-centred empathy should always be accompanied by appropriate closure with prayer and seeking God. We should leave anyone to talk about or re-live dark painful moments without inviting God’s Light in.
- Beware our body cues. There is little point in telling people we care for them when it isn’t communicated appropriately to them in our body language. Otherwise, it may feel hollow and unauthentic. We can nod or make soft sounds to show we are listening and sit slightly forward, listening attentively.
James 1:19 ESV this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
Life can be hard to walk alone, especially in a world that promotes selfish ambition. When we empathise with one another, we grow stronger together. This is God’s wisdom – that by practising how to be full of mercy, gentle, and empathetic towards each other, we become peacemakers who “reap a harvest of righteousness”. God Himself is compassionate and kind. And contrary to what the world tells us, exercising empathy requires courage!
James 3:17-18 NLT But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.
Exodus 34:6 NIV And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,
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