The word empathy doesn’t appear in most translations of the Bible (although the concept is certainly there, as we will see), so we don’t tend to think of it as a powerful biblical idea like faith, hope, or love. But empathy may be the biblical super-weapon you have never heard of.
Think a bit about what empathy is and what it does. A simple definition of the word might be “the awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others, and the ability to experience them ourselves through the power of imagination.” It has been defined as the ability to hear echoes of another person’s experience in your own life – it’s the ability to imagine ourselves in someone’s else’s shoes.
However, empathy isn’t just a nice concept that might be useful from time to time in getting along with others. Behavioral scientists have found that the ability to show empathy is hard-wired into our mental processes. Research has confirmed that at the neurological level, humans are equipped with “mirror neurons” that give us the capacity to mimic the emotional signals others display through facial expressions and other forms of body language. This simply means we are made to be able to express empathy toward others, if we choose to do so.
So what does this have to do with our Christian living? Empathy is a biblical teaching many of us routinely read over without realizing its importance. Beginning in the Old Testament, empathy is taught continually. It is a concept that is rarely, if ever, found in the laws of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, but one that pervades the laws of the Hebrews.
For example, closely following the Ten Commandments, the book of Exodus gives a great number of laws commanding empathetic behavior that are clearly worded in such a way as to encourage empathy. Consider these examples:
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in?” (Exodus 22:26). “…You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day” (Exodus 22:29-30).
These laws basically tell us: “Think about what it is like to be an immigrant,” “Think about how it feels to sleep without covers,” “Think about how a mother – human or animal – feels about her newborn.” These calls to empathy are not tacked on to the laws as encouragement to obey them – they are given as the reason for the laws themselves.
Many of these laws encourage empathy toward animals specifically: laws such as those commanding that a bird’s nest be moved rather than ploughed over (Deuteronomy 22:6) and that a young goat must not be boiled in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 6:16). Obedience to such laws does not make much sense if there is no feeling of empathy behind them, and we can see them also as lessons in learning to understand and apply empathy. When we turn to the New Testament, we find empathy is encouraged and even commanded. When the apostle Paul writes: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), he is not urging us to fake joy or sorrow, but to experience it along with others. That is why he could write of the members of the Body of Christ: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The apostle Peter also summarizes this principle in his words: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8).
But the laws of the Old Testament and the exhortations of the New go beyond simply telling us to sympathize – to feel sorry for – our neighbor; they call us to empathize – to suffer with – him or her. In fact, Peter’s urging us to be “of one mind” is an almost perfect definition of empathy – and the Greek word he uses that is translated “be sympathetic” literally means to be “together emotioned” – another near-perfect definition of empathy rather than sympathy.
So why is empathy a potential super-weapon in the Christian’s armory? Psychologists have found that as we become more individualistic and self-centered as a society, we are actually losing the ability to empathize with others – and it has long been known that a lack of empathy is a defining characteristic of sociopaths and those who coldly hurt and abuse others.
The Christian, on the other hand, is called to imitate a God who empathizes: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are …” (Hebrews 4:15). We, too, can learn to empathize through the things we suffer – if we think about it. We can also learn from biblical stories that give examples of empathy – if we think about them. And we can learn from the rules and exhortations the Bible gives us urging behavior that is based in empathy – if we think about them. The key is making the decision to consciously think about these things from the perspective of empathy, because there can be no empathy without thought. Empathy is one of the few ways we can change our behavior from within instead of relying on external rules that can enforce right behavior but not create compassion.
We may spend a great deal of time thinking about Christian virtues, especially love, but how much time do we spend thinking about empathy? The answer will invariably affect how well we can love others and how well we are able to fulfill the royal law of loving our neighbor as ourself.