Empathy—Key to Kindness and Compassion
“SO LONG as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain,” wrote Helen Keller. Keller certainly understood emotional pain. At the age of 19 months, an illness left her totally blind and deaf. But a compassionate teacher taught Helen to read and write in Braille and, later, to speak.
Keller’s teacher, Ann Sullivan, knew only too well the frustration of fighting a physical disability. She herself was nearly blind. But Ann patiently devised a way to communicate with Helen by “spelling out” letters on Helen’s hand. Inspired by the empathy of her teacher, Helen decided to dedicate her own life to helping the blind and the deaf. Having overcome her own disability at great effort, she felt for those who were in similar circumstances. She wanted to help them.
You have likely observed that in this selfish world, it is easy to ‘shut the door of one’s tender compassions’ and ignore the needs of others. (1 John 3:17) Christians, however, are commanded to love their neighbor and to have intense love for one another. (Matthew 22:39; 1 Peter 4:8) Yet, you are probably aware of this reality: Although we fully intend to love one another, we often overlook opportunities to relieve others’ pain. That may simply be because we are not aware of their needs. Empathy is the key that can unlock the door to our kindness and compassion.
What Is Empathy?
One dictionary says that empathy is the “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” It has also been described as the ability to put oneself in the other fellow’s place. So empathy requires first of all that we comprehend the circumstances of someone else and second that we share the feelings that those circumstances provoke in him. Yes, empathy involves our feeling another person’s pain in our heart.
The word “empathy” does not appear in the Bible, but the Scriptures do refer indirectly to this quality. The apostle Peter counseled Christians to show ‘fellow feeling, brotherly affection and compassion.’ (1 Peter 3:8) The Greek word rendered “fellow feeling” literally means “to suffer with another” or “to have compassion.” The apostle Paul recommended similar sentiments when he exhorted fellow Christians to “rejoice with people who rejoice; weep with people who weep.” Paul added: “Be minded the same way toward others as to yourselves.” (Romans 12:15, 16) And do you not agree that it would be practically impossible to love our neighbor as ourselves if we did not put ourselves in his place?
Most everyone has a degree of natural empathy. Who has not been moved when seeing heartrending images of starving children or distraught refugees? What loving mother can ignore the sobbing of her child? But not all suffering is readily discernible. How difficult it is to comprehend the feelings of someone who is experiencing depression, a concealed physical impediment, or even an eating disorder—if we have never had such problems ourselves! Nevertheless, the Scriptures show that we can and should develop fellow feeling toward those whose circumstances we do not share.
Scriptural Examples of Empathy
Jehovah is our prime example of empathy. Although perfect himself, he does not expect us to be perfect, “for he himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14; Romans 5:12) Moreover, since he is aware of our limitations, ‘he does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear.’ (1 Corinthians 10:13) By means of his servants and his spirit, he helps us find the way out.—Jeremiah 25:4, 5; Acts 5:32.
Jehovah feels personally the pain his people suffer. He told the Jews who had returned from Babylon: “He that is touching you is touching my eyeball.” (Zechariah 2:8) Keenly aware of God’s empathy, Bible writer David said to him: “Do put my tears in your skin bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8) How comforting to know that Jehovah remembers—as if they were written in a book—the tears his faithful servants shed as they struggle to keep their integrity!
Like his heavenly Father, Jesus Christ is sensitive to the feelings of others. When he healed a deaf man, he took him aside, likely so that his miraculous recovery would not unduly embarrass or startle him. (Mark 7:32-35) On another occasion, Jesus observed a widow about to bury her only son. He immediately sensed the pain she was suffering, approached the funeral procession, and resurrected the young man.—Luke 7:11-16.
After his resurrection, when Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, he let Saul know how his vicious persecution of the disciples affected him. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he told him. (Acts 9:3-5) Jesus personally felt the pain suffered by his disciples, like a mother who feels the pain of her sick child. Likewise, as our heavenly High Priest, Jesus ‘sympathizes with our weaknesses,’ or according to Rotherham’s version, he has “fellow-feeling with our weaknesses.”—Hebrews 4:15.
The apostle Paul learned to be sensitive to the suffering and feelings of others. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is stumbled, and I am not incensed?” he asked. (2 Corinthians 11:29) When an angel miraculously freed Paul and Silas of their bonds in a Philippian jail, Paul’s first thought was to advise the jailer that nobody had escaped. He empathetically sensed that the jailer might commit suicide. Paul knew that according to Roman custom, a jailer would be severely punished if a prisoner escaped—especially if he had been instructed to guard him securely. (Acts 16:24-28) Paul’s life-saving act of kindness impressed the jailer, and he and his household took steps to become Christians.—Acts 16:30-34.
How to Cultivate Empathy
The Scriptures repeatedly encourage us to imitate our heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, so empathy is a quality we need to develop. How can we do this? There are three main ways by which we can sharpen our sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others: by listening, by observing, and by imagining.
Listen. By listening carefully we learn what problems others face. And the better we listen, the more likely they are to open up their hearts and reveal their feelings. “I can talk to an elder if I feel confident that he will listen to me,” explains Miriam. “I want to know that he really understands my problem. My confidence in him grows when he asks me searching questions that show that he has listened carefully to what I have told him.”
Observe. Not everyone will openly tell us how they feel or what they are going through. A keen observer, however, will notice when a fellow Christian seems depressed, when a teenager becomes uncommunicative, or when a zealous minister loses his enthusiasm. This ability to sense a problem in its early stages is vital for parents. “Somehow, my mother knows how I feel before I talk to her,” observes Marie, “so it is easy for me to talk frankly to her about my problems.”
Use your imagination. The most powerful way to stimulate empathy is to ask yourself: ‘If I were in this situation, how would I feel? How would I respond? What would I need?’ Job’s three false comforters proved incapable of putting themselves in his position. Hence, they condemned him for imaginary sins that they assumed he must have committed.
Imperfect humans often find it easier to judge mistakes than to understand feelings. However, if we try hard to imagine the distress of someone afflicted, it will help us to sympathize rather than condemn. “I give much better counsel when I listen carefully and try to understand the whole situation before beginning to offer suggestions,” commented Juan, an experienced elder.
The publications distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses have helped many in this regard. The Watchtower and Awake! magazines have discussed problems as complex as depression and child abuse. This timely information helps readers to be more sensitive to the feelings of those who suffer in such ways. Likewise, the book Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work has helped many parents to relate to their children’s problems.
Empathy Helps in Christian Activities
Few of us could disregard the plight of a starving child if we had food available to share with him. If we have empathy, we will also discern a person’s spiritual condition. The Bible relates about Jesus: “On seeing the crowds he felt pity for them, because they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) Millions today are in a similar spiritual condition, and they need help.
As in Jesus’ day, we may have to overcome prejudice or ingrained tradition to reach the hearts of some people. The empathetic minister endeavors to find common ground or to speak about subjects that are on the minds of people in order to make his message more appealing. (Acts 17:22, 23; 1 Corinthians 9:20-23) Acts of kindness motivated by empathy can also make our listeners more receptive to the Kingdom message, as was true in the case of the Philippian jailer.
Empathy is invaluable in helping us overlook the failings of others within the congregation. If we endeavor to understand the feelings of a brother who has offended us, we will doubtless find it much easier to forgive him. Possibly we would have reacted in the same way had we been in the same situation and had we had his background. Jehovah’s empathy moves him to ‘remember that we are dust,’ so should not our empathy motivate us to make allowances for the imperfections of others and to ‘forgive them freely’?—Psalm 103:14; Colossians 3:13.
If we have to give counsel, we will probably do so in a much kinder way if we comprehend the feelings and sensitivities of the one who has erred. The empathetic Christian elder reminds himself: ‘I too could have made this mistake. I could be in his situation.’ Paul thus recommends: “Try to readjust such a man in a spirit of mildness, as you each keep an eye on yourself, for fear you also may be tempted.”—Galatians 6:1.
Empathy can also impel us to offer practical help if it lies within our power to do so, even though a fellow Christian may be reluctant to ask for it. The apostle John writes: “Whoever has this world’s means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? . . . Let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 John 3:17, 18.
In order to love “in deed and truth,” we first need to see our brother’s particular needs. Do we observe carefully the needs of others with a view to helping them? That is what empathy is all about.
Cultivate Fellow Feeling
We may not naturally be very empathetic, yet we can cultivate this fellow feeling. If we listen more attentively, observe more keenly, and imagine ourselves in the situation of another more frequently, our empathy will grow. We will as a result feel impelled to show more love, kindness, and compassion to our children, to other Christians, and to our neighbors.
Never allow selfishness to smother your empathy. “None of you should think only of his own affairs,” Paul wrote, “but consider other people’s interests also.” (Philippians 2:4, Phillips) Our everlasting future depends on the empathy of Jehovah and of his High Priest, Jesus Christ. Thus, we have a moral obligation to cultivate this quality. Our empathy will empower us to become better ministers and better parents. Above all, empathy will help us to discover that “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35.
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Empathy involves observing carefully the needs of others with a view to helping them
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Will we learn to show the empathy that a loving mother naturally feels toward her child?