Recovering True Empathy in a Fractured World

Empathy is diminishing rapidly in our culture. We’re told that “the average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 per cent of people in 1979”. Yet 1,500 books available through Amazon apparently have a version of the word empathy in their title. As with other things it seems the more something is talked about, the less there is. Some fear that it is talked up in such a way as to amount to a religion in itself; a belief in the power of “feeling”. Do we just need a little kindness to make everything better? Is that the same as true empathy? How should we think and act biblically about this?

Sympathy is more a sense of pity whereas empathy seeks to put ourselves in the same place as those for whom we have compassion.  This kind of compassion is something that Scripture emphasises (1 Peter 3:8). It makes clear that believers ought to be affected by the experience of others as if it were their own. This is loving our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10:37). In particular, we are to experience the affliction of others of the household of faith as if we were afflicted with them (Hebrews 13:3), as members of the same body (1 Corinthians 12:26). We have the example of Christ who was troubled and wept (John 11:34-35) in empathy for his mourning friends. 

Empathy can be directed in a good and a bad way. It has limitations and may stop at feelings without moving to right action. When psychologists commend empathy they have no objective standard of when it is right to be empathetic. Nor do they have anything more than a subjective standard for why we ought to experience such feelings. The gospel of Christ, however, provides this standard. It shows the compassion of Christ moved to action and gives a reason why we ought to show compassion (Ephesians 4:32). Empathy isn’t only compassion, however, it experiences joy together with others as well as sorrow (Romans 12:15).

The Church ought to be the place where true empathy flourishes. But true empathy is now sentimentalism. When the apostle Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens in Galatians 6:2 it comes immediately after the instruction to recover those who are overtaken in a fault (Galatians 6:1). Compassion means bearing with the weaknesses of others to help them not indulge them. We are truly loving them when we seek their spiritual good and encourage them affectionately but firmly towards holiness. This fulfils the law of Christ, the mutual love that we ought to have another which is not content to see our brother go on in sin (Leviticus 19:17). True empathy is driven by the gospel and the moral standards of Scripture.

James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy in the following updated extract. It focusses on Colossians 3:12 where Paul is speaking of what believers must put on having been emphasising what they must put off and put to death since verse 5. This shows the connection between holiness and true empathy. He emphasises that those who are beloved of God and have received His grace must live in a particular way towards our neighbour. All the graces required in verse 12 are in relation to our neighbour.

1. True Empathy Comes from Grace

There is a necessary connection between the new man or principles of grace in the heart, and the exercise of Christian virtues in the duties we owe to our neighbour. He speaks of their having put on the new man (v10) and therefore urges them to exercise and put on these virtues.

The knowledge of our election leads to holiness not ungodliness.  So he reasons from their election (“put on therefore, as the elect of God”) to their exercise of those virtues, speaking to the truly gracious among them.

2. True Empathy Comes from Holiness

Our holiness must be manifest. Paul joins these two together “the elect of God, holy” the latter is the evidence of the former. Having holiness is a strong motive to spur us towards more holiness. He reasons from their being holy to “put on therefore as the elect of God, holy”.

3. True Empathy Comes from God’s Love

The Lord’s love of approval towards us, delighting in those who are truly gracious, approves of His own graces in them (John 14:21). This love should constrain us to love Him again and show our love in the exercise of those graces which He requires in relation to our neighbour. He calls them beloved, i.e. with the Lord’s love of approval and reasons from their being so beloved: “Put on therefore as…beloved”.

4. True Empathy is Merciful

We ought to have the greatest inward feeling of and sympathy with the misery of others. In urging them to put on mercy, he refers to the inward parts of the body being moved by it. The word expresses such an intense motion of the heart and soul, that the very inward parts are moved by it. [The original word in Greek means the inward parts such as heart, liver etc. being the seat of the emotions]

5. True Empathy is Active

Our sympathy with others in their misery ought to be outward and not merely inward. This is done by helping them in their misery according to our ability, which is the “kindness” that they are to put on.

6. True Empathy is Humble

The grace of humility makes someone have a modest esteem of themselves due to a sense of their own weaknesses (Philippians 2:3). It makes them wish that others would esteem them similarly (1 Corinthians 3:5). Humility is essential for obtaining more grace (1 Peter 5:5). They must, therefore, put on humility of mind.

7. True Empathy is Long-suffering

The grace of meekness makes someone amenable and not easily provoked with the folly, weaknesses, and lesser wrongs done to him by others. Long-suffering moderates anger, even under the greatest abuse. Meekness and long-suffering are necessary graces which help us bear with the weaknesses of others to correct them (Galatians 6:1). They keep us from avenging ourselves (Romans 12:18-19) and in our patience make us possess our souls (Luke 21:19). We are to “put on…meekness, long-suffering”.

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Second Reformation Author: James Fergusson

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Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.

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