Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’ – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Whenever I talk to people about the power of empathy, most are quick to say that they feel they are empathic themselves. Usually, I will try and dig a little deeper to find out at least their definition of empathy – which, more often than not, reveals just how little people understand what true empathy is all about. See, most people that I’ve discussed this with think that empathy is simply ‘caring about others.’ And while empathy does include caring about the welfare of those around us, it is so much more than this. For starters, the true definition of empathy is “to understand and share the feelings of someone else.” This is the most powerful tool that God can use in you as a missionary. But, it is our responsibility to develop this gift. Similar to the parable of the talents, we must multiply the gifts that God has given us.
So, how do we develop empathy? Or better yet, what can I do to be a more empathic person?
The following are a few habits that you can work on; and over time, you should begin to notice how ‘in-tune’ you are to the feelings of those around you.
- Be eager to learn more about people you don’t know
- Be aware of your own preconceived opinions about others
- Focus on similarities between yourself and others
- Be vulnerable
- Be charitable
While these are excellent habits that we can implement almost immediately, these are not the be-all and end-all to developing empathy. Truly caring about someone else, especially those who cannot give you anything in return, is one of the most important skills we can ever posses as a Christian, and as a human being.
My favorite story in the Bible is found in John, chapter 11; otherwise known as The Death of Lazarus. The story goes like this:
Two women, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, is sick. The Bible explains that all three: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, were loved by Jesus. Upon hearing this, Jesus simply replied, “he’s not going to die.” Even so, he told his disciples that they would work a couple more days and then visit Lazarus and his family. But, his disciples were hesitant because the last time they were in Judea, the Jews tried to stone Jesus. Regardless, Jesus decides to go anyway, and the disciples go with him, basically expecting to be stoned upon arrival. When Jesus and his disciples arrive, they find that Lazarus had already been dead and buried for four days. As soon as Lazarus’ family hears that Jesus had arrived, Martha runs to see him, saying, “If you had been here, you could have saved Lazarus.” But, she also says, “I know that you can still save him.” Then, Martha goes back to her house to tell Mary that Jesus wants to see her. Mary quickly leaves the house and goes to where Jesus is waiting. When she sees him, she falls to his feet and says, “If you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And then she starts crying.
Now, this is the most significant part of this entire story, at least in the context of showing real empathy. If you would like, you can open your Bible and read these passages for yourself. Starting at John 11, verse 33, it reads:
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Why did Jesus weep? Did he cry because Lazarus had died? Well, that wouldn’t make any sense because before he even went to see Lazarus he plainly stated, “Lazarus isn’t going to die.” So, what is going on?
At this point, there are many things that Jesus could have said to Mary about her brother. He could have said, “Your sister Martha has more faith than you, she told me that she believes in my power to heal, and raise people from the dead.” Or, he could have simply told her, “Don’t cry, I will bring back your brother, don’t worry.” But, he didn’t do either of those things.
Jesus was more interested in how Mary was feeling at the time, insomuch that he himself could feel her pain. The Lord’s level of empathy for his friend Mary was so strong, that even though he knew he had the answer to her pain (i.e. bringing Lazarus back from the dead), he simply cried with her.
Do you see now?
If we could all strive to achieve that level of empathy for our fellow man, even when we believe we have all the answers, then we would see such tremendous results in the Lord’s work. The ‘hardened minds’ of those that just can’t come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, would begin to soften by the healing power of Christ’s love, directly transmitted through your love and empathy for them.