The word empathy does not appear in the Bible, but the Scriptures do refer indirectly to the characteristic or quality of demonstrating empathy, which is defined as “the capability to share another’s emotions and feelings.” The apostle Peter counseled Christians to have “compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous . . .” (1 Peter 3:8 NKJV). The apostle Paul recommended similar sentiments when he exhorted fellow Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
There is an important distinction between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the capacity to feel deeply for someone despite the fact you do not share the same experience. Sympathy is the capacity to feel deeply for someone because you do, in fact, share the experience. Compassion, sympathy and empathy all have to do with passion (feeling) for another person because you identify with his or her suffering. True empathy adds the expression of those feelings.
It was the apostle John who said, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17) We know that as Christians we are commanded to love our neighbor and to have intense love for one another (Matthew 22:39; 1 Peter 4:8). Though we are aware of this and intend to love one another, we often overlook opportunities to relieve others’ pain. That could be because we are not aware of others’ needs. Empathy is the key that can unlock the door to our kindness and compassion.
There are several other examples of empathy in the Bible. God, of course, is our prime example. He knows us very well, as the psalmist declares, “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). He personally feels the pain of His people. Again, the psalmist tells us, “You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book?” (Psalm 56:8). How comforting it is to know that God records all our tears as we struggle in our lives!
Jesus Himself was also very sensitive to the feelings of others. When He healed the deaf man, He took him aside, perhaps so that his miraculous recovery would not embarrass or startle him (Mark 7:32-35). On another occasion, Jesus observed a widow about to bury her only son. Sensing her pain, He approached the funeral procession, and resurrected the young man (Luke 7:11-16). Matthew tells us how Jesus “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:35-36). Jesus’ greatest empathy was for their spiritual weariness, a condition He came to rectify.
The word compassion describes for us the deep inner mercy of God. He saw the weary, the scattered . . . the lost without a shepherd to guide them. The word for “weary” can also mean “troubled, bewildered, or despondent.” The word for “scattered” is also translated “prostrate” or “thrown to the ground.” These two words indicate man’s helplessness without Jesus, for it is He who is our Shepherd. It is He who can show people how to avoid life’s pitfalls (see John 10:14; 1 Peter 2:25). As we humble ourselves before others, we can care for them . . . just as He cares for us.