The Bible has a lot to say about empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is closely related to compassion, sympathy and love – all values that are central to the Christian faith. Here is an overview of some of the key Bible passages that discuss empathy and its importance:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
This famous parable told by Jesus illustrates the importance of having empathy for others, even those considered outsiders or enemies. In the story, a Samaritan man goes out of his way to help a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten, while religious leaders had ignored him. Jesus concludes the parable by telling his followers to “Go and do likewise” – to love their neighbors through compassionate action.
Weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15)
Paul instructs Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Entering into the emotional experience of others, whether joy or grief, is a demonstration of Christ-like empathy. Christians are called to identify with others.
Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
This verse teaches that Christians should help carry each other’s burdens and problems. Bearing another’s burdens requires understanding their situation and sharing in their suffering or distress. It is a concrete expression of empathy.
Be kind and compassionate (Ephesians 4:32)
Paul exhorts Christians to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” Kindness, compassion and forgiveness all flow out of an empathetic heart that seeks to understand and identify with others.
Jesus as high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15)
The book of Hebrews says that Jesus serves as our perfect high priest, and that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Because Jesus lived as a human, he can empathize with our struggles and temptations. His divine empathy leads him to offer grace and mercy.
The Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:37-39)
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus replied to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others requires empathy – putting ourselves in their place and acting out of care and concern for their wellbeing.
Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35)
This parable contrasts a servant who receives mercy yet refuses to show mercy to others, with a master who shows empathy and forgiveness. The lesson is that those who receive God’s mercy should extend empathy and forgiveness to others.
Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
This parable about three servants given resources to steward contains a poignant picture of empathy. The master welcomes and commends the successful servants, saying “enter into the joy of your master.” True empathy involves rejoicing at another’s joy.
John 11:33-35 – Jesus weeps
Upon seeing the grief of Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus, Jesus himself felt empathy and compassion for their sorrow. Despite knowing he would raise Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” The Son of God identified deeply with human pain and grief.
1 Corinthians 12:26 – Suffering together
Paul writes that Christians are one body, and “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” When one part of the Church community suffers, the others identify and share in the suffering through empathy and prayer.
Philippians 2:1-4 – Consider others as more important
Paul urges the Philippians church to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” He explains this requires humility and considering others more important than ourselves – a posture of empathy.
Colossians 3:12-14 – Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility
Paul instructs believers to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Living as God’s chosen people involves growing in empathy through compassion, care and mercy for others.
Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and mercy
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught extensively about forgiveness, highlighting God’s great mercy toward us. He called his followers to extend similar grace and empathy to others – forgiveness requires seeking to understanding someone’s actions.
Biblical examples of empathy
In addition to explicit teachings, the Bible contains many narrative examples of empathy:
– The way the Samaritan cared for the injured man, seeing him as a neighbor in need rather than a foreigner. (Luke 10:25-37)
– When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers who had sold him into slavery years earlier, he wept and assured them of his forgiveness rather than vengeance. He could empathize with their perspectives. (Genesis 45)
– Ruth’s loyal commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi, even when she had no obligation to do so. She empathized with Naomi’s grief and loss. (Book of Ruth)
– The way Jonathan warned his friend David about Saul’s plans to kill him, empathizing with his dangerous situation. (1 Samuel 20)
– The tenderness and care the father showed for his prodigal son when he returned. The father didn’t lecture him, but embraced him. (Luke 15:11-32)
– When a sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and her tears. Jesus felt compassion and empathy for the woman despite the contempt shown by his host. (Luke 7:36-50).
How the Bible says we should demonstrate empathy
Based on all these passages, we can identify some key ways followers of Christ are called to show empathy:
– Considering others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)
– Identifying deeply with the situations of others emotionally (Romans 12:15)
– Bearing one another’s burdens by offering practical help (Galatians 6:2)
– Forgiving and showing mercy, rather than judgment (Matthew 18:21-35)
– Demonstrating tenderness, compassion and kindness (Colossians 3:12)
– Weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15)
– Caring for the needs of strangers, foreigners and minorities (Luke 10:25-37)
– Avoiding entitlement but showing humility (Philippians 2:3)
– Expressing gratitude and rejoicing in others’ wellbeing (Matthew 25:21)
– Listening before responding to understand fully (James 1:19)
Why Christians are called to show empathy
The Bible makes it clear that empathy should be a defining trait of Christ’s followers. Here are some key reasons why:
– We are called to emulate Christ, who perfectly modeled empathy throughout his ministry (Hebrews 4:15)
– Empathy is foundational to truly loving others as ourselves (Mark 12:31)
– It enables us to fulfill the second greatest commandment to “love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39)
– Practicing empathy helps us become more unified as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26)
– It follows the biblical principle of considering others as more important (Philippians 2:3)
– Empathy is necessary if we desire to share in others’ emotions and burdens (Romans 12:15, Galatians 6:2)
– It reflects the humility and compassion of Christ (Philippians 2:1-4)
– Failure to empathize can hinder relationships and cause disunity in the church (Philippians 2:1-4)
– God desires that we show grace and forgiveness to others, which requires empathy (Matthew 18:21-35)
Empathy in the face of sin or disagreement
The Bible’s call to empathy does not mean compromising on sin or truth. We can still empathize while holding to moral convictions and calling people to repentance. But we must do so with humility, recognizing our own flaws. We can understand someone’s emotions and experiences without necessarily approving of all their actions or beliefs.
Jesus consistently modeled this balance – he forged deep connections with people (the woman at the well, Zacchaeus etc) but still called them to repent and turn to God. Paul also maintained moral truth while emphasizing love and empathy.
Empathy empowered by the Holy Spirit
While empathy comes naturally for some, for many it is a skill we must grow in. The good news is that it is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). As believers walk in step with the Spirit, he develops Christ-like empathy within them. It is not merely a human skill but a gift from God to share in the burdens and emotions of others.
The capacity for empathy – fully understanding and entering into others’ thoughts, emotions and experiences – is highlighted throughout the Bible as a virtue for Christians. Followers of Jesus are called to radical levels of empathy, modeled after Christ’s profound compassion during his earthly ministry. With the Spirit’s help, cultivating empathy enables us to love others as ourselves and live out biblical principles of forgiveness, unity and care.