As a professional counselor, I sit across from struggling souls just about every day. People have all kinds of problems and the nuances to people’s problems are many. It is not uncommon that some solutions per se are very readily apparent. But what is sometimes less obvious is that we need more than “solutions” – we need empathy. We need someone who is able to understand our problems and be with us in the midst of our problems. Empathy is a much needed ingredient in the life and make-up of the counseling relationship. But I want to “split hairs” for a moment to parse out empathy according to the Bible and empathy according to the world of psychology, and then how it’s ultimately employed in the context of counseling.
Empathy According to Psychology
Empathy within the world of psychology is described in an article published on the American Counseling Association website titled, The Value of Empathy.
“Empathy allows us to connect with each other and to understand and share in our humanity. Empathy gives us common ground to allow each other to be truly heard and listened to; it allows us a space to experience some of the emotions and feelings of what it takes to be someone else. We can connect on the most basic human level. “The Value of Empathy, April 19, 2017 (https://www.counseling.org)
While there many parts of the article I agree with, such as that empathy does allow us to connect; it is something we learn and develop, it is an essential ingredient for successful therapy, there are parts that I do not agree with. For instance, I disagree that empathy enables us to connect at the most “basic human level”. In this sense, I would argue that empathy is not sufficient to help us connect at the basic human level. In this sense, we need more than empathy in order to do that. I will argue we need a person.
Additionally, in a separate article, Impressing the need for Empathy, we notitce:
“Empathy is the one trait that will put an end to all cruelty, violence, aggression and bullying in our children,” [Author] says in explaining why she focuses so much attention on empathy. “If we recognize and put ourselves in the shoes of other people and understand how our behavior affects them, we would absolutely choose to behave differently.”Impressing the need for empathy, May 15, 2008 (https://ct.counseling.org)
Again, I agree with some parts of this article, such as “Our community suffers tremendously when we are only concerned with our own wants and desires and either don’t recognize the feelings of others or don’t care.” However, I disagree with what appears to be two broad presuppositions that these two articles say without directly saying:
(1) There is inherent power within empathy to lead toward needed transformation either on an individual level or larger (i.e. community, society, world). This transformation begins and ends within core of our humanity.
(2) The inherent reasons for our problems in living are a result of a lack of empathy. In other words, if only I knew better, I would behave better.
Empathy according to the Bible
Empathy according to the Bible enables us to respond to these presuppositions as well as properly orient us on how to employ empathy in a way to achieve optimal counseling outcomes. So what is empathy according to the Bible? Quite simply, empathy according to the Bible is less about a skill set to develop and more about a person for us to know. The person I am referring to is Jesus.
Hebrews 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Hebrews 10:34 – “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
You might suppose that the key words denoted in these passages are sympathize and compassion. The NIV translation in 4:15 is empathize of the greek transliterated term sympatheō. An apparent juxtaposition rests in our English language in the verbiage between sympathy and empathy; however, in the context of the original Greek text, we learn that the feel and tenor of sympatheō, “to be affected with the same feeling as another“ is in essence what we are after within empathy or even our idealized versions of sympathy.
The hair splitting difference between empathy and sympathy is not much if you ask me. If anything, the core difference rests in the underlying motivations, intention and true attitudes toward the one our empathy is directed, (i.e. our client). We might say, therefore, that sympathy and empathy are somewhat interchangeable, going back and forth especially in the context of optimal motivation, intention and attitude toward our clients.
What we see in the 10:24 passage is a more nuanced biblical description of sympatheō – in this case, compassion. Compassion is empathy applied in a very specific sense. It’s the exact representation of an emotional posture toward someone who is in need. Vines expository dictionary renders the term to suffer with another. Compassion flows from a proper understanding of the plight of the individual’s state, and warrants a behavior change both in terms how we actually engage the person on a behavioral/relational level as well as how think about the problems that prompted the compassion and sympathy in the first place.
Compassion and sympathy are hand-in-hand with empathy, and when properly applied enables us to encounter the means by which we experience the fundamental transformation required in the midst of our problems. What are these means – as mentioned above, it is a person…Jesus. Jesus is the means by which the fundamental transformation needed in the midst of our problems occur.
As we grow and develop biblical empathy, we concurrently grow in our understanding of the person and work of Jesus. What is more, because Jesus serves us the way he does, we develop a greater awareness of our deep, deep problem that led to Jesus’ compassionate response to us in the first place; namely, sin.
Jesus is the means by which we experience transformational empathy.
Sin is the principle reason why we need empathy – why we need to be transformed.
Let’s apply this.
Empathy in counseling
Empathy applied according to the Bible challenges us to do far more than any other form of empathy. We see Jesus taking our best versions of empathy and multiplying them by a measure we can never attain. The empathy of Jesus does more than identify with us, does more than seek to understand what it is like to walk in our shoes; it does more than develop a common ground so we felt heard and understood. The empathy of Jesus is such that he actually was in our shoes. Jesus actually did experience temptations in every respect just as we do. The knifes edge that make the difference between Jesus’ work more valuable than anyone else’s is that he faced those things without sinning.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21
This is the highest of highs of any emphatic paradigm. The very thing worst thing about us Jesus actually became. By doing this, we (who hope in him) in turn are able to become like the very best thing about Jesus. In this sense we no longer settle for empathy because we’ve been given what our hearts really need. To say another way, we need more than someone to identify with us and our problem, we need someone to be us. Our primary problems is sin and Jesus did more than understand our sin, he became sin. Yet, this is only the first half of transformational process. If we are to have hope beyond our suffering, then we need more than someone to be like us, we need to be like someone else. The pain and difficulty of a life that requires an emphatic response leaves us with this question – in my suffering, who am I becoming. For the Christian, Christ-like suffering is our aim.
a life without the need for empathy
Going forward, now that we have this person who did more than walk in our shoes, the transformation out of the life and circumstances that required empathy is underway. Paul says, that we “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2Cor 3:18).
Our vision for life moving forward is a vision of God’s eternal kingdom. The horrible state of affairs that led to our need for empathy are placed in proper view.
Because of Jesus, we are actually able to see beyond our suffering and pain. Because of Jesus, we can actually look forward to the consummation of the Kingdom of God.Tweet
The kingdom of God does not consist of talk but of power.1 Corinthians 4:20
We have been delivered from from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved son.Colossians 1:13
Please don’t get me wrong. Empathy is a good thing. Counselors, husbands, wives, friends parents, teachers, you name it – we should all strive to be better at extending empathy. But know that there is something more than empathy that our friend or family member needs – they need Jesus.
As we journey the pilgrimage of this Christian life and are able to more and more long for the day when we see Christ face to face, we are comforted, for “as we share in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too,” (2 Cor 1:5). As this comfort develops, the trials we face that require empathy have new meaning as we learn to see they are part of God’s work in our life. It is not as if we ever enjoy suffering and difficulty, but our hope in the midst of suffering and difficulty take new shape with a new vision of life moving forward. This new vision is Christ-like suffering.
Christ-like suffering creates a new vision of a way forward as we are now on a transformational pathway of learning how to love God and others in ways we’ve never loved before. As our love for God and others increase, we realize that empathy was but a foretaste of better things to come. As we mature, we are emboldened with new vision of empathy as we come along side a fellow sojourner. We may give empathy but we keep pointing them to Jesus and his kingdom, with both of you longing for the day when all sin, all pain, all weariness will altogether be no more. That day is coming when we will finally have a life without a need for empathy.
Citations: They are provided and/or embedded as hyperlinks. My main commentary resource was Blue Letter Bible.
If you see needed grammar corrections, please feel free to drop me an email :-). Thank you!