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Embracing Empathetic Living

By Dr. David Wheeler, November 28, 2023

“We who are Christians can win many to Christ if we just demonstrate the love that Christ commanded us to show. The hurting world waits for people just like that.” — Thom Rainer

Many people consider “sympathy” and “empathy” to be interchangeable parts, but knowing the difference will radically change how you live out your Christian life.

According to Google Dictionary, sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” while empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In other words, it is the difference between merely acknowledging a neighbor’s needs when a family member has a debilitating illness and actually sacrificing one’s time and energy to meet the person’s practical needs.

Think about it: If you were unable to mow your lawn or go to the grocery store because of an illness, you would quickly notice which neighbors simply acknowledge your needs and which neighbors are willing to meet your needs by putting empathy into action. If we are being honest, how many of us fall into the “acknowledge” category of “sympathy” rather than the biblical call to “empathy” and personal sacrifice? Make no mistake: Jesus is calling all Christians to a lifestyle of empathy.

A great example of empathy is found in John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” We all recognize this as the shortest verse in the Bible. But how incredible is it that God used two simple words to reveal the heart of Christ as it relates to empathy. Within these two words is more emotion, love, and compassion than contained in some novels. True to form, Jesus takes something small and seemingly insignificant to teach an amazing lesson. He leads by example, instructing us that empathy, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, is essential if we are to represent Him well.

It is easy to read John 11 and lose sight of the two insightful words, “Jesus wept.” After all, Christ does eventually raise Lazarus from the dead. It is understandable that such a miraculous event would steal the thunder for the moment.

The problem is that it is too easy to celebrate the supernatural acts of Christ without seeing His humanity. Here we are encouraged to feel and hurt for those we serve. As “Jesus wept” with those who were grieving, we must learn to do the same. This is especially true when it comes to being effective in evangelism.

When I was in seminary, we were warned about becoming too engaged in others’ pain for fear of being consumed by emotions that might cloud our discretion. In many cases, the result was a generation of ministerial robots who lost touch with society and the people they were called to serve.

Jesus’ example should encourage us to live empathetic lives. Contemporary culture is crying out for genuine Christianity, not lifeless religion.

Empathetic living is never forgetting how it feels to be lost. It is hard to empathize with the unsaved if you have forgotten what your life was like before you surrendered to Christ. For a glimpse of this concept, go to Revelation 5:4. John is in heaven kneeling before the throne of God. He notices several scrolls being grasped by the One sitting on the throne. He then realizes that if no one steps out to open the scrolls containing the redemptive history of humankind, everyone is destined to spend eternity in hell. John’s response was to cry uncontrollably for fear of a lost eternity! We must display the same urgency in our daily lives for the unsaved in our spheres of influence.

Empathetic living is taking what Satan means for destruction and turning it around for the glory of God. Everyone has a testimony of God’s grace and love. It may be the loss of a friend, personal illness, loss of a job, or the challenge of a disability. Being the liar that he is, Satan will try to use difficult times to pull you away from God. In reality, God is sufficient and wants to use your testimony to celebrate His wonders and to empathetically point people to Him.

Empathetic living is relating to the emotional pain of hurting people. Learn to relate to the pain of others. Hurt with them. Pray for them. Cry with them. Share Christ with them.

Empathetic living is living an authentic life, not hiding your warts. Part of living an empathetic life is learning to live with your personal struggles and shortcomings (warts). People in today’s culture are not looking for perfect examples to follow. Rather, they would prefer that you identify with them as flawed human beings. In doing so, people are more comfortable developing relationships, thus making it easier to open the door for Gospel conversations. Remember, accepting and loving people is not the same as condoning their sinful behavior.

Empathetic living is proclaiming complete restoration through Christ. The ultimate outcome of putting empathy into action is to see hurting and unsaved people restored through the power of the Gospel. By becoming vulnerable enough to feel a person’s pain, you are living out the message of Christ to people in need of a Savior. The next step is to boldly share the Gospel out of the overflow of empathetic living.

This column is adapted from “Evangelism Is” by Dave Earley and David Wheeler (B&H Publishing, 2010).

Dr. David Wheeler is a Professor of Evangelism in the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity and the Senior Executive Director of LU Shepherd under the Office of Spiritual Development. He has served at Liberty University since 2006.

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