I was at church this past Sunday; our pastor started a new sermon series on the book of Exodus. As he read through the verses he was preaching on, my mind became fixated on Exodus 2:23-25. These verses introduce us to the God of Empathy. Empathy is something I have been learning about in my graduate program. In the counseling world, empathy is an essential ingredient to counseling relationships, and for any relationships.
God Hears Israel’s Groaning
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:23-25, ESV).
Empathy creates connection and fosters belonging. It enables us to act compassionately towards others. Empathy is a visceral or deep inward feeling. The early twentieth century German philosopher Theodor Lipps coined the word empathy from the German word Einfuhlung, “to feel within” (Neukrug, 2016). Empathy, when ignited within us moves us deeply into the life of another, and unites us in another person’s emotional experience.
Empathy is the antidote of shame – Brene Brown
The person who probably has had the greatest impact on our modern understanding and use of empathy is Carl Rogers.
His definition of empathy is this:
“The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition” (Rogers, 1959, pp. 210–211).
What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?
This past summer when I was at one of the Residency weeks for my graduate program, a professor shared his thoughts on the difference between sympathy and empathy:
Sympathy says “I am sorry for your loss.”
Empathy says, “I feel your pain.”
Empathy allows people to feel felt.
Sympathy is an unemotional cognitive understanding of someone’s situation or circumstance. Whereas empathy is the heart-connection that draws us deeper into a shared experience with a person. Brené Brown says that empathy is about connection and sympathy is about separation.
Why is being empathic so difficult?
There is something about empathy I realized not too long ago, and that is empathy only goes as deep for others as you have empathy for yourself. I know this sounds counter intuitive because empathy is an outward feeling and connection with others. If Lipps is correct, that empathy is to “feel within” of others then it seems logical that we also need to feel within ourselves Many of us struggle with being empathic towards others because we haven’t dealt empathically with our own feelings. I know I haven’t. I don’t allow myself to explore and measure the depths of pain, hurt, loneliness, disappointment with myself and others, and the shame and fear I live with every day. I have a feeling I am not alone in this.
Jesus understood the importance of empathy.When Jesus was talking about what it takes to love people around us deeply and unconditionally, he said it is important to love others as you love yourself (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; and Luke).Paul also talked about this twice (Romans 13:9 & Galatians 5:14).
I found something interesting in Ephesians 5:28-30. In this Ephesians passage, Paul appears to be talking about the husband and wife relationships, although he later discloses that he is talking about Christ and the church. But as I digress from my point… It’s possible Paul is lending commentary to the “Greatest Commandment” passage in the New Testament—conjecture of course.
Paul says in verses 28-29, husbands love your wives as your own body and that he who loves his wife loves himself. But it is in verse 29 I find pertinent to the empathy conversation, in it Paul says “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it…”
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it… Think about this for a moment… Just as important, it is to love ourselves well so that we can love others well; we need to have empathy toward ourselves so that we can have empathy towards others.
Something else to think about: Jesus coming to earth to sit with us, walk with us, cry and laugh with us, and to share in our suffering and temptations, and to feel what we feel; I don’t know about you, but I feel felt. If this isn’t empathy, then I don’t know what it is.
What will empathy cost me?
If I were honest, which I really want to be, empathy is uncomfortable, sympathy is so much easier to do. Sympathy allows me to show care and concern for others in a superficial way. It doesn’t cost me anything to have sympathy for someone. But empathy, well empathy demands that I fully imbue myself into another person’s feelings and experience. Empathy will cost you time and resources, and it will give you life, freedom, and empowerment. Empathy gives hope.
There is nothing more healing to a lonely soul than empathy.