Empathy is more than an attractive personality trait. It’s an instrument of healing. Jesus understood that better than anyone. He interacted with people from all walks of life—from wealthy merchants to tax collectors to blue-collar workers to the outcasts of society.
Jesus changed their lives because He first understood their lives.
In order to follow His example, we need to recognize a few truths about empathy.
Empathy requires heightened powers of observation.
The first step in developing empathy is noticing. That means paying close attention to the people around you—looking past their public face for signs of …
- … or any other emotions they may be struggling with
In some cases, it might mean simply noticing people who are overlooked by society—the homeless, the addicted, the elderly. Being acknowledged in any way feels like empathy to someone who’s used to being ignored. That creates all kinds of potential and opportunities for us to make a difference in their lives.
Empathy is a drawing card.
Jesus didn’t heal every disabled or hurting person who came to see Him. Yet crowds still thronged to Him. Part of that certainly can be chalked up to the hope of winning the “healing lottery”—being chosen by Jesus for a hands-on curing of blindness, deafness, paraplegia, illness, demon-possession and occasionally death.
But part of it might also be chalked up to the simple fact that Jesus noticed them. He didn’t glance away or hurry past when He encountered hurting people. He held their gaze and searched their eyes. He took note of their circumstances. He felt their pain. He was incensed by their outcast status. He identified so strongly with them that He confused His other followers (see Matthew 25:35-40).
The hurting people in first-century Israel flocked to Jesus because they could tell that He cared about their struggles. They could sense His empathy. What was true for Jesus 2,000 years ago is true (to a lesser degree, of course) for His followers today. If people recognize Christ-like empathy in us, they will be drawn to us. They will invite us into their lives. They will give us a chance to make a difference.
Empathy works social wonders.
Empathy is the key that opens the door to meaningful conversation—the kind of interaction that can change lives. The very nature of empathy, trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of another person, leads to openness and transparency. The right questions, asked with sensitivity, sincerity and empathy, can draw people out in surprising ways. Knowing that someone cares enough to ask the questions is the beginning of healing for many people.
Empathy also goes a long way toward de-escalating conflict. If people sense that you’re trying to talk them out of their opinion, they will almost certainly keep their guard up. If, on the other hand, they sense that you’re trying to understand their point of view, they will be more likely to open up.
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