The Power of Empathy
The words empathy and sympathy are often tossed about and used interchangeably. While it is true that there are some similarities in their meaning, it should be noted that there is more than a subtle difference between the two ideas. A closer examination of these two terms will prove very interesting for the child of God and will help him realize that God wants Christians to exhibit both empathy and sympathy. In our time today, let us devote our attention to empathy; in a future lesson we will consider sympathy.

Defined, empathy is simply being able to understand another person's situation, their feelings, and even their motives. It's being able to identify with or relate to that which another is experiencing. Empathy is a trait that is definitely needed by the Christian--especially when dealing with those outside the body of Christ. It is needed by the Christian who desires to wins souls for Christ. The apostle Paul knew empathy was a quality that God's children should have. In I Corinthians 9:19, the apostle declared, "though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more." In the following verses, he went on to describe how he empathized with Jews, those under the law, those without law, and the weak. In verse 22 he explained, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." By being able to relate to and understand these various groups--by empathizing with them--Paul made himself more approachable and found himself in a better position where he "might win the more" for Christ.

As you can see, empathy is a quality that can help one strengthen relationships. Additionally, it is a beneficial trait to have when dealing with someone who has made a mistake or is struggling with sin. Typically, it is all too easy for one to mercilessly browbeat another person who has brought a problem upon himself or is struggling with sin. Unfortunately, such coarseness often accomplishes very little good and may leave the struggling individual feeling hopeless and worthless (or even resentful). However, when one takes the time to empathize with the person who is struggling, the chances of offering counsel that is both wise and beneficial greatly increases.

A great example of this is found in John 8:1-11 where we read of Christ's treatment of the woman caught in adultery and those who sought to stone her. Jesus understood the woman's situation and knew her feelings. He even understood the motives of the scribes and Pharisees who dragged the woman before Him.

When all was said and done, Jesus offered neither a coarse rebuke nor a fiery discourse condemning the woman or even the Pharisees and scribes. Rather, He spoke the words they needed to hear in the manner they needed to hear them. Having said that, let me hasten to point out that Jesus did not condone the sins and actions of either the woman or the scribes and Pharisees! Also, note that He did not treat them the same way. To the Pharisees and scribes who sought to ensnare Him, Jesus offered a subtle yet powerful rebuke that caused those who heard it to be "convicted by their conscience" and leave. To the woman caught in the act of adultery, He simply admonished her to "go and sin no more", and, through these words, He let the woman know that she had a second chance to do better with the instruction to sin no more.

Friends, the application should not escape us. We can all benefit by applying the demeanor exhibited by Christ in that situation. When we find ourselves dealing with those who are struggling with a mistake or with sin, let us endeavor to empathize with them and do as Christ did by remaining calm, listening, rebuking when necessary, and instructing as we encourage them to do better. Further, let us remember that we too make mistakes--we too sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). By remembering this and the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12), we will be in a much better position to truly understand and identify with the struggles of others.