The Empathetic Spirit

A great deal has been written about empathy from a psychological point of view, particularly in the effort to distinguish it from sympathy.  Far less has been written about its spiritual dimension.

On that score, arguably the etymology of the word remains an important clue to its spiritual significance.  From the Greek preposition en or “in” and the noun, pathos or passion, empathy refers to the capacity to “feel into” or even “suffer into” the experience of another.

It becomes instantly clear that to have an empathetic spirit is to enter into the same spirit that animates the Incarnation of Christ.  In fact, the empathetic human being could be said to extend the benefits of the Incarnation by becoming the hands and feet of Christ.

The example of Christ also serves as a means of testing whether we are being genuinely empathetic.  Certain behaviors obviously fail that test.

When we are self-referential and parade our efforts to be empathetic, we obviously fail the test.  When we wax long and eloquently about the way in which the pain we inflict on others saddens us, we obviously fail the test.  When the focus is on the feelings we experience in the act of being empathetic, or when we limit our care for others to the expression of sorrow for someone else, we also fail.

In other words, the deeply spiritual and empathetic human being enters into the pain of someone else — often completely unseen and unrecognized.  And they do it at an expense to themselves.  It is not a performance.  It is a way of living.

Even the person for whom we care in that deeply sacrificial fashion may not be able to identify the gift that they have been given.  But embraced by the One who enters fully into our struggles, we deepen our acquaintance with God and bless one another.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.