Practicing Empathy

By Gwen Sellers

I was asked the other day to describe a television, movie, or book character with whom I could not empathize, and then to come up with ways to increase my empathy toward this person. It struck me as a bit odd. First, in my opinion, quality entertainment connects its consumers to characters. If we don't like the characters, we aren't going to watch the show or read the book. Certainly there are villains, but these characters are intentionally underdeveloped so that we can easily dislike them. Secondly, aside from the learning opportunity it presented for my counseling course, why would it be important for me to develop empathy for a fictional character? That got me thinking. Spiritually, does it matter if I can empathize with people? Is it something I should work on, even using entertainment as a training tool?

So we're all on the same page, let's first define empathy as compassionate understanding that leads to connection. It's what happens when we recognize, resonate with, and effectively communicate our understanding of another's emotional state. In many ways, it's part of how we comfort others with the comfort we've received (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). Empathy is a means by which we love others (John 13:34-35). Jesus was empathic. Probably the biggest demonstration of His empathy is summed up in the statement, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Knowing that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and thereby remove the grief of the mourners, Jesus still chose to enter into their grief. He did not glibly pass by their emotional state. He engaged with it, understanding their hearts and connecting with them by participating with His own heart. He even empathized with sinners. We never see Jesus condemn or speak harshly to a hurting person looking for healing. He certainly never condoned their sin, but He did not write the person off either. The woman at the well (John 4) is an excellent example of how Jesus engaged with the longings of the heart in a gentle and understanding way. It seems clear, then, that Christians should be empathic people.

For some of us empathy may come more naturally than for others. We grow our empathy through experience and practice, as well as through reliance on the Holy Spirit and an accurate understanding of truth. It seems to me that an easy way to practice empathy is through entertainment. We are exposed to different situations and character types and can consider how we might approach them through compassionate understanding. So the next time you are watching TV or a movie, reading a book, or even people watching, consider how you might empathize with various people. Can you be gracious? Can you see what is driving them? How might you respond to that person in a Christ-like manner, with love and truth?

Image Credit: Yannig Van de Wouwer; "Addiction"; Creative Commons

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Published 6-05-13