The Scriptures refer to the quality of empathy, which we see demonstrated in several biblical narratives. Empathy is the capacity to feel another person’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes vicariously. 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 also encouraged empathy when he exhorted fellow Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Empathy is related to sympathy but is narrower in focus and is generally considered more deeply personal. Compassion, sympathy, and empathy all have to do with having passion (feeling) for another person because of his or her suffering. True empathy is the feeling of actually participating in the suffering of another.
The apostle John asked, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17). Pity in this verse is related to empathy, and both require action. As Christians we are commanded to love our neighbor and to have intense love for fellow believers (Matthew 22:39; 1 Peter 4:8). Though we intend to love one another, we often miss opportunities to relieve others’ pain. That could be because we are unaware of others’ needs; or perhaps we are not practicing empathy. Empathy is the key that can unlock the door to our kindness and compassion.
There are several examples of empathy in action in the Bible. Jesus was always sensitive to the plight of others. Matthew tells us how Jesus, “when he saw the crowds, . . . had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). On another occasion, Jesus observed a widow about to bury her only son. Sensing her pain (the NLT says that Jesus’ “heart overflowed with compassion”), He approached the funeral procession and resurrected the young man (Luke 7:11–16). Having lived a human life, our Lord can and does empathize with all of our weaknesses (see Hebrews 4:15).
The word compassion describes the deep mercy of God. God is the very best at empathy: “He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). He personally feels the pain of His people: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT). How comforting it is to know that God records all our tears and all our struggles! How good to remember God’s invitation to cast all our cares upon Him, “because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7)!