The word, empathy means “entering into someone else’s feeling.“ It’s often confused with sympathy, (literally, “to feel with”), but where sympathy carries a connotation of pity or feeling sorry for, empathy is more about putting oneself into the shoes of another and feeling the same thing he or she is feeling.
When we feel what people are feeling, we can know how to communicate the gospel to them in a way that demonstrates God’s goodness, nearness, compassion, and love for them. The alternative is to stay at a distance from people, maintaining the disconnection between the message and its intended recipients.
What are people feeling? When we remember that those who are not in Christ are utterly dead in their sin, it’s easier to understand that they might be feeling hopeless, helpless, frustrated, angry, alone, lost, anxious, curious, self-righteous, put-upon, etc. To all these concerns, Jesus is the answer. But it isn’t enough to simply say that Jesus is the answer; we need to show it, too.
Empathy is a missionary skill because without it, God’s people remain at a debilitating distance from those to whom we’ve been sent. Our mission is to close the distance between ourselves (as Christ’s ambassadors) and the recipients of our message so that we can not only communicate the Good News about Jesus, but also apply that Good News to real life situations. We become like those who do not know Christ in order to communicate and demonstrate what life in Christ might look like in the cultures in which we find ourselves.
In the Incarnation, Jesus modeled this sort of missionary posture for us. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that our high priest (Christ) is able to empathizes with our weaknesses because he was tempted in all the ways we are. It’s important to note that though he entered into our feeling (empathy), he did not join us in sinning. Likewise, it is the job of a missionary people to join people where they are (in feeling, station, location, concern, rhythm of life, etc.) but not participate with them in sin.
To practice empathy, consider these steps:
Pray. God knows and loves the people to whom you’ve been sent. Pray that God would give you love, insight, understanding, empathy, and patience as you seek to empathize. Remember that the Spirit of God enables us to love even our enemies and to bless those who may even be antagonistic toward us.
Move close to people. Proximity is essential to sympathy. This includes physical proximity (being where they are, spending time in the same environments and conditions) as well as emotional proximity (connecting in a personal and emotional way). In every case, moving close to people requires action on our part- action that will likely be uncomfortable, challenging, and risky.
Listen and observe. We gain insight by paying attention. In order to empathize, we must do our best to understand were people are coming from. Ask questions, and listen to their answers with the goal of understanding. This allows us to address the questions people are actually asking (rather than the ones we assume they have).
Let your guard down. When we allow ourselves to feel what others are feeling, we become connected to them in ways that facilitate discipleship and community. In order to do this, we must suspend judgement, be slow to take offense.
Reflect. As you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (metaphorically and maybe even literally!), be sure to take time to stop and think about your own feelings. I recommend keeping a journal (or a private blog of sorts) that can help you record and process. Self-awareness will help you lean in to someone else’s pain because, lets’ face it– we all seem to have pain of our own, so joining someone else in their pain can be, well, painful.
Echo. Try to articulate the feelings of the other person in your own words, but in such a way that the they identify with. This will help them feel understood, and will help you know if you’re understanding.
Comfort with the gospel. Sometimes, when we join people in their pain, we try to comfort by minimizing their problems or with self-help solutions. But the ultimate comfort is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! Be sure our empathy points people to Jesus.