One definition for the term empathy that I found was “Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives”. On the Internet you will find a number of videos on the differences between empathy and sympathy, yet the actual origin of the term sympathy means “feeling with someone” (Dictionary of Word Origins, John Ayto, p. 516). Maybe when people use the terms today there is a difference between the two, but originally sympathy meant like empathy to feel with someone.
The Good Samaritan
Luke 10:29-37”But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30 Jesus replied and said, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.' 36 ‘Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?’ 37 And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same’."
One writer had an interesting view of the priest and the Levite: “Think back to the parable of the Good Samaritan. I believe that the priest and the Levite, were, at heart, kind and compassionate people. Most people in professional religious careers are; or at least they start out that way. But something often happens to them, and the same thing can affect the rest of us as well. We plunge into our careers, then we start raising our families, we deal with ever-increasing financial demands and life keeps getting faster and faster and faster. Doesn’t it almost go without saying that people consistently living in crisis mode are generally no big distributors of compassion? Knowing the demands and pressures associated with church work, I can almost hear the priest and Levite whispering to themselves as they passed by the wounded traveler: ‘You think you’ve got problems? I’ve got six more meetings before sundown!’” Or, as a stressed-out executive told me recently, ‘I have learned that to make it my career, I have to put everything outside of work on indefinite hold” (Becoming a Contagious Christian, p. 73-73). How many times do we miss opportunities to show mercy because we “have to be somewhere else” or are so preoccupied with our own problems?
In the above account observe the following:
- The compassion, mercy and empathy that God expects of us is more than just feeling sorry for someone. One can feel sorry for someone and still keep on walking by.
- Observe how Jesus describes the man as feeling compassion (Luke 10:33) and showing mercy. Compassion involved coming over, helping him, taking time out of his life, getting into the situation with the person in need and even opening up his wallet (10:34-35).
- Note that the Samaritan did leave the next day (10:35). Compassion does not mean forsaking my own family or spending all my time with someone in need, but it does mean doing something to help, getting the person in need to a place where they are not in danger any longer.
- Observe how real compassion does not stand aloof or remain at a distance. Empathy fuels connection and actual human contact with those who are hurting. It gets in the situation with them. If someone is in a pit of despair, it comes down into the pit and says, “I have been here before myself, I know what it is like, I know what you are feeling, and you are not alone”.
- Empathy refused to leave this man alone on the road.
- There is nothing wrong about giving advice, but observe that empathy does far more than just give advice. With the man lying half-dead on the road, this was probably not the time to tell the man, “Hey, it’s not a good idea to travel on this road all by yourself”.
- Also note that the Samaritan did not try to fix the problem with just the right word or expression. When people are hurting there is really no phrase or word you can say that will remove the suffering like a magic wand. What really helped this man was the connection with another human being who simply did what they could to help them in this crisis.
- Also I am impressed with how Jesus informs us that compassion is not impossible. The Samaritan did not do anything impossible. He simply went over, bandaged the man and took him to an Inn.
- Sometimes what prevents us from helping other people is either we think we are too busy, it is inconvenient, or we are not qualified to help.
“At Least and the Silver Lining”
Over the years I have typically been an optimistic person. If I am stuck in traffic I might say to myself, “At least you are not in an accident”. I typically try to find the silver lining, and I don’t believe there is anything wrong with counting your blessings when things go bad (Psalm 130:10; 119:71; James 1:2-4). Yet telling this man lying on the road, “Well, at least your family wasn’t with you” does not qualify as compassion. There is a time to find the silver lining, yet when in the moment there was something more pressing.
“We Have Been There Before”
Matthew 18:21-37 “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.' 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' 29 So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' 30 He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?' 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."
The above parable not only reveals how unreasonable it is to refuse to grant forgiveness, especially after we have experienced it (1 Peter 2:1), but equally how inexcusable it is to fail to have empathy upon anyone who is struggling with sin, for we have all struggled with it, we have all felt the guilt and the feeling of hopelessness.
Empathy for the Lost
- Jesus is coming and they are completely unprepared.
- I know the answers to their problems, not because I am so smart, but because someone mercifully shared the truth with me.
- Their problem is not just going to go away or things are not just going to get better in their lives without God. This is not one of those things that will just fix itself. Time will not heal this wound.
- When someone shared the gospel with me, it was probably not convenient or easy for them.
- I know what it is like to be without God in this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). I know what it is like to be in bondage to sin (Titus 3:3).
Mark Dunagan | firstname.lastname@example.org
Beaverton Church of Christ | 503-644-9017