The Power of Empathy

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”   Galatians 6:2 NLT

In this writing to the churches of Galatia, the Apostle Paul encouraged believers in Christ to extend to one another the courtesy of empathy.

Empathy is the effort to identify with and understand another person’s situation, feelings and motives. It is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another. Paul stated that empathy toward others is one means through which the law of Christ finds expression.

Indeed, Jesus was very clear that the entire law and prophets are summed up in the commands to love God with “our all” and to love others as we do ourselves. (Matthew 22:35-40) Empathy – imagining ourselves in the other person’s place – is one way that we can demonstrate Christ’s love to others.

We are living in a time when people all around us are facing serious, life-changing issues. Sickness and disease, strained relationships, moral failings, and the loss of jobs and homes bring with them the need to contend with the unfamiliar. People are “feeling the pressure” – and, unfortunately, people who are under pressure don’t always act in nice or desirable ways!

When we encounter “pressurized people,” we can practice empathy by trying to understand their situations and the circumstances that are causing them to act as they do. We can decide to “cut them some slack” rather than placing them on our permanent “Nasty Person, Avoid at All Costs” list!  We can employ the Native American proverb: “Help me never to judge another until I have walked in his moccasins.”

There are some situations where empathy will come easily for us. Those are the times when we see others who are confronted with challenges we ourselves have faced. The experience gained from our past helps us to empathize and offer support to others. In Second Corinthians Paul affirms: “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” (4:1 NLT)

At other times – those times when we don’t have a shared experience and we need to try to “understand the unimaginable” – we will need to draw on the grace of God to do so. Even in those situations, God has provided a way! As we look to Jesus as our Example, we are sure to find the grace for empathy, because, as Hebrews 4:15 states, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one (Jesus) who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”

When we put forth the effort to try to comprehend and identify with another’s situation, we are employing the quality of empathy. Academy award winning actress Meryl Streep said it this way: “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” Let’s use that great gift – that power – to demonstrate God’s love by being more perceptive and gracious toward others.

- Pastor Donna Larson