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Empathy is entering into another person’s world and feeling with that person, rather than feeling sorry for him or her. This is what the apostle Paul was encouraging us to do when he wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Empathy is more than feeling sorry that your spouse is burdened or troubled. Empathy takes place as you carry your spouse’s burdens. It says, “I feel your pain.”
Empathy expresses connection on a much deeper emotional level. Watch how Christ modeled the gift of empathy with His close friends when His good friend Lazarus died. “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept” (John 11:33-35).
Isn’t it fascinating how the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept,” is also the best illustration of empathy? I’m convinced that Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus already had the perfect solution in mind for the problem He encountered. He didn’t try to calm down the family when He found them weeping and agonizing over the loss of their brother. Instead of trying to relieve their pain by talking about the solution or how He was going to fix the problem, Jesus modeled empathy. Jesus wept. After Christ’s empathy, the Jewish people watching exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).
Putting empathy into action
Becoming empathetic is a process. First, allow your open heart to be touched by the pain of others; Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit.” Next, allow your heart to experience what your spouse is feeling; Jesus wept with them. Finally, don’t try to end his or her pain; follow Christ’s example and just sit with your spouse’s emotions. We don’t need to fix someone’s feelings or try to move them beyond their pain.
Romans 12:15 provides great advice: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Certainly, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but He took the time to mourn and empathize with His friends first. When my wife, Erin, is hurting, she does not want me to ignore her and pretend nothing is going on. She doesn’t want me to say, “Snap out of it!” She doesn’t want me to compare her situation to that of the less fortunate. Erin wants me to mourn with her, experience her emotions, feel her pain and see things from her perspective. Listening helps me to understand and validate her emotions. Empathy, however, allows me access to the deepest levels of intimacy by saying, “I feel with you.”
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.