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Empathy: A Hard-Won Gift

men holding hands
What better way to represent our Lord and serve others than with the gift of empathy?

Empathy is arguably one of the most advanced of all communication skills. Putting ourselves in someone else’s place can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes another’s circumstances are so foreign to us we often cannot fathom what they are going through.

For instance, I’ve never known what it feels like to go hungry. Sure, I’ve been really famished and have even used the phrase “I’m starving!” But I have always been able to satisfy this need, even if it’s running into a gas station for an overpriced granola bar. It would be awful to be hungry (I mean really hungry) and I feel bad for the countless starving people on this planet. But do I have empathy? Not really.

If I had true empathy for starving people, I would give all my extra money to ministries and soup kitchens instead of spending five bucks on a coffee drink. This makes me feel ashamed, so why don’t I donate my “coffee” money? Why isn’t sympathy enough motivation?

While I haven’t gone hungry, I have had a lot of tragedy in my life. Loss, pain and sorrow have often been companions in my earthly walk. I have many times cried out to God, wondering why my life has taken dark turns. Often the answer comes back to me when a friend is sharing her struggles.

Because of the hardships the Lord has allowed in my life, I’m able to feel more than sympathy and give my friend the gift of empathy. It’s a hard-won, precious gift, and as with sea glass, it is sometimes the buffeting of life that makes us beautiful. After all, we don’t walk down the beach searching for shards of shiny glass; we want to collect pieces that are frosted and smoothed by the “trials” of the sea.

When I was younger, I was in a horrible car accident where my little sister was called home to heaven, and I almost died. The pain of losing my sister is something I carry with me always. I know what it is to live with pain — emotional and physical. Because of my own hardship I am able draw from a deep well of empathy.

I was talking with a new friend the other day, and she started sharing how her sister had died a few years ago. The hurt she felt was still so raw that she started crying. Tears came to my eyes as I shared that I knew exactly how she felt because I had gone through the same thing. I explained my feelings of loss, how there will always be a hole in my life where Amy should be no matter how much time passes. How I often think of how old she would be now and how the pain deepens on important days like my wedding and the birth of my son. Yet I know my sister is with the Lord, and it is only sad for those of us left behind. My friend nodded through her tears and said no one ever understands how she feels. Empathy is a bridge of understanding; through my own loss I could share in her loss.

Love Your Neighbor

The definition of empathy according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the “feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s place when you have no point of reference. But as God allows certain experiences in our lives, we don’t have to imagine empathy because we feel it automatically; it is a gift we can give a hurting person.

The apostle Paul says in Roman 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (ESV). We are taught as Christians to share our neighbor’s emotional experiences. I am drawn to the action words of this statement. It doesn’t say, “Feel bad for those who are mourning.” It says literally cry with them. Have the same emotion they are having — with a passion — one that brings forth tears. This is a powerful teaching Paul is trying to get across to the church in Rome and ultimately to all Christians. We are all called to show grace and love to hurting people, even when we can only guess at how they feel, but the true depth of empathy is achieved through experience.

It takes a brave person to pray for empathy, braver than me, but God allows experiences in my life that “teach” me this gift. Trials in our lives have many purposes; it took a long time of walking with the Lord and studying His Word for me to discover the lessons hidden in my own hardships. They are often for our growth: to teach us reliance on God, to draw us back or closer to our Savior, or to give us empathy for our neighbor.

Would I choose to go through the fire so I can better understand the trials of others? No! But trouble in this life is guaranteed. Jesus says in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (ESV). We are told not to be surprised by trouble (it is coming), but as Christians we can turn pain into beauty as we use our troubles to serve God.

A Higher Calling

What would the world look like without empathy? Very ugly, dark and satanic. Many events in history come to mind, but one that sticks out is the Holocaust. I’m sure, like me, you are deeply disturbed at how people could be so cruel to other human beings. The Nazis, and others like them, are able to send innocent people (including children) to their deaths because they have no compassion, love or empathy in their hearts.

Many historians believe one of the reasons something as tragic as the Holocaust occurred was the state of the German people as a whole. They had lost World War I, and the country was devastated. Although there were heroes that emerged, many of the citizens became bitter and were easily persuaded to join Hitler’s regime. This is a clear example of people letting hardship darken their hearts instead of fostering the empathy that God desires.

Christ is the ultimate example of empathy. He literally put himself in our place when He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. So when God allows us to go through a hardship, we should consider it a privilege to suffer as our Lord Jesus suffered and use our experience to bless others.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21, ESV). The New Testament is full of writing on the subject of suffering. It is just a part of our reality. God uses our suffering to reach a hurting world.

As Christians, we have a higher calling. We have been bought at a price and are no longer our own, but humble servants to our King. The greatest commandments are to love our Lord with all our hearts, minds and souls, and to love others as ourselves. In a world rampant with selfishness, vanity, bullying and greed, God offers a better way. We are after all His hands and feet, and what better way to represent our Lord and serve others than with the gift of empathy?

The word empathy has roots in the ancient Greek word empatheia, meaning “passion.” It is more than standing by and shaking our heads in sympathy. It’s jumping into someone’s grief and hurt, shedding tears and sharing the truth and hope of Jesus Christ. Empathy opens doors into another’s soul, gives us opportunities to encourage and strengthen someone’s faith, or most importantly, point a lost soul toward eternity.

Copyright 2014 Emily Downs. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Emily Downs

Emily Downs lives near the shores of Lake Michigan with her husband and son. Her passion is to encourage Christians through her writing and speaking ministry. Her work is published internationally and can be found in magazines, books, on the radio and soon to be in film. She just finished her debut novel and is starting the publishing process. Email her at [email protected]

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