*This post is by Stacy Thorpe, Ministerial Coordinator for Care & Counseling, South Campus (Bethlehem Baptist Church).
Empathy is being talked about a lot in our culture right now. It is simply defined as the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others. This sounds like a good thing, yet as Christians, how do we think biblically about empathy and the amount of emphasis on it?
As our already individualistic society becomes even more disconnected, empathy seems like a good answer to our culture’s problems. The value placed on empathy can be seen as an expression of God’s common grace: that people see a benefit to caring for the feelings and experiences of others and want to grow in that.
Yet as good as empathy is, it has limits. If we let the feelings of others determine what we do, it can lead us in unhealthy ways. Empathy can be exhausting; caring endlessly about the feelings of others can leave us feeling drained and swallowed up. The only way our culture can counteract these concerns about empathy is to talk about boundaries, and the need to know how to have appropriate ones with others.
This value of empathy has no foundation of its own to stand on, no moral ground for why we should have empathy for one another. When the good gift of empathy is seen as an end in itself, we miss the Giver of the good gift. Our pursuit of empathy leads to idolatry, either exalting other people or ourselves. The gift has become ultimate unless it leads us to the Giver (James 1:17).
Empathy points to something that only originates in God: love. We understand it best when it is grounded in the biblical concept of God’s love. We know that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God was “made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).
As God’s image-bearers, we too are to display love. Love defines our relationship with God and with other people, reflected in the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
There is a correlation between loving God and loving others. John tells us “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Our love for God or lack thereof will affect our horizontal love for others.
When we get down to the how of showing love to people in everyday life though, it is really hard. We know we are to weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. But how do we love self-sacrificially like Jesus did, without allowing the other person’s pain or problems to rule us? How do we address sin in the life of someone close to us, or when should we just forbear? These questions require wisdom in the endless variety of circumstances and relationships we find ourselves in.
God knows that we will need wisdom; thankfully entire portions of the Bible fall into the genre of wisdom literature. These can help guide us in wise love. Proverbs 9:10 says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When we fear and love God first, love for others flows out of that and is kept in the right order. This will help us to “speak the truth in love” to one another, as we grow up and become more like Jesus. Biblical love is always connected to truth, but it is also patient and kind (1 Cor. 13:4).
So the world is on to something in valuing empathy, but as Christians, we understand it more fully as biblical love. We look to Jesus as the only one who can truly empathize and knows us deeper than anyone else. And because of his love for us, empowered by the Spirit, we can wisely love others in the strength that he supplies. And when we love imperfectly, as we will all continue to do, we can confess it to the Lord and others in repentance, knowing that we have received forgiveness to walk in love again.