Thoughts for the Soul

“Jesus’ Compassion and Empathy”

Posted on: Dec 2, 2021

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

“Empathy” is a “new” word, created in the early 20th century. It’s certainly not in the bible. The sentiment is, however.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for “to have compassion” refers to a “sensation in the innards, [which were] regarded as the seat of emotions. . . .” This response to someone’s anguish or adversity is readily understood today as empathy: “knowing another person’s feelings, feeling what that person feels, and responding compassionately to another’s distress.”

I recently learned about a human relations consultant who works mostly with construction companies—and very often with construction foremen. Most foremen advocate being tough so you can “get your money’s worth” out of workers. The consultant, however, has shown time after time how his work with foremen pays off—literally.

The foremen’s training begins with a personality survey that documents their assertiveness (which is usually well above average) and their empathy (which is usually well below average).

An example of assertiveness might be that a worker arrives late because he had to take his wife to the ER in the middle of the night. The foreman ignores the reason and tells him he’d better start pounding nails into those shingles on the roof.

As part of their training, the foremen are also supposed to practice empathy with their wives. When they get home, they are scripted to ask, “Honey, how did your day go today?” The men are supposed to listen to their wives without making suggestions about how to solve any problems they describe. Rather, they initially practice sentences like, “Gee, you must have felt ________ when that happened.”

Company benefits are very concrete: absenteeism, sick days, and job turnover all decline. Morale improves and profits increase. Many foremen also report that after a few weeks their love life also improves dramatically!

If relationships grow and organizations—even churches—work better when we exercise compassion or empathy, why don’t we practice how to be more empathetic, more compassionate, more merciful? Aren’t God’s love and compassion what Jesus taught and showed in his life?

I will continue this theme in next month’s column. For now, it is helpful for us to know what stress (especially distress) and fear are among the most common blocks to practicing empathy. When we feel pressured by a work or family situation, for instance, it is very difficult to calm ourselves enough to fully listen to another person. Similarly, when we are uncomfortable with or afraid of someone, listening is probably the last thing that’s on our minds.

Our ability to practice empathy, though, is a mark of our spiritual maturity. Construction foremen practice greater empathy so profits increase. As Christians, we need to consider how to intentionally practice empathy to grow our faith.

—Pastor Fogal


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