Empathy, which should not be confused with sympathy, is the ability to understand the emotions, situations, thoughts, or attitudes of another person. It takes great emotional capacity to be able to feel what others feel, and while this comes easier for some than for others, we can all practice participating in the emotions of others as a way of loving them.
Does the Bible say anything about empathy?
The Bible frequently refers to acts of empathy. Loving one another often means becoming deeply personal with each other, and we see this in the Scriptures as Paul encouraged Christians to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). By sharing these emotions, we live life together as a Christian family, through all of the ups and downs. The apostle Peter also encouraged Christians to show compassion to others by having "unity of mind" and a "tender heart" (1 Peter 3:8).
Empathy is often the catalyst for action. The apostle John phrases this relationship between empathy and action in this way: "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). The love of God leads us to compassion (and empathy) for one another. If we do not have compassion on those who need material possessions or food or water, we are far less likely to act. Although we have intention of acting as God's hands and feet in this world, we often miss opportunities because we lack the empathy to perceive needs. Christians are called to love one another earnestly (Matthew 22:39; 1 Peter 4:8). One way we can begin to love others is to practice growing our empathy so we can understand each other.
Of course, Jesus is our best example of empathy. He was born as a human so He could experience every human emotion (Hebrews 4:15). We can rejoice that Jesus has complete empathy for what we go through in our lives. The Gospels are full of stories of Christ showing compassion on people who need it. In Luke 7:11–16, Jesus saw a widow's pain and was filled with compassion for her. He felt her deep sorrow and grief and brought her son back to life, and everyone there glorified God because they saw how He understands and heals pain. Jesus was always sensitive to others' experiences and stories (Matthew 9:36).
Just as we are able to show love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), we are also able to show empathy because God is the greatest empathizer. David cried out to God in the Psalms, and his poetry teaches us how God intimately understands us. "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8). We can be comforted through knowing that God has the capacity to know our each and every struggle and emotion. We can cast our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
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