Thoughts for the Soul

More About “Jesus’ Compassion and Empathy”

Posted on: Dec 2, 2021

Last month I wrote about how a consultant doing empathy training with construction foremen grows profits. I observed that as Christians, we need to consider how to intentionally practice empathy to grow our ability to exercise our faith. “Empathy” is our modern word for the New Testament word “compassion”—acknowledging another person’s feelings, sensing what that person feels, and responding compassionately to another’s distress. In Luke, Jesus relates the story of The Prodigal Son to illustrate how human compassion shows God’s compassion: “While [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.”

Being empathic doesn’t mean that we should go around hugging and kissing others all the time—or even part of the time! It does mean that we recognize and share another person’s feelings, and in light of those feelings, we respond to the other person in a caring way.

Some people seem to be blessed with an innate ability to do this—to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. Others of us don’t. Neuroscientists agree that several interconnected regions of our brains are involved in empathy. The innately gifted among us would seem to have more of those connections.

Regardless of our brain’s “wiring,” however, we can all become more empathetic. (witness the experience of the construction foreman in last month’s column.) At the risk of oversimplifying, we grow our ability to be more compassionate by paying attention to certain things.

Knowing ourselves is central to becoming more empathetic. A “best” starting point is practice some form of meditation, starting with focusing on, and appreciating the simplicity of, inhaling and exhaling. This isn’t hocus-pocus. Just stopping occasionally and paying attention to our breathing helps connect us to a fundamental aspect of our being.

Self-knowledge also comes from regular moments of pause and reflection. Questions like these help focus our thoughts:

Who is most important in my life?
What values are most important to me?
How do I show others who and what are important to me?
What can I do to improve how others see what’s important to me?

Self-awareness requires that we be honest with ourselves. This is akin to loving ourselves, as Jesus points out in the Great Commandment in Matthew: Love God, and love others as you love yourself. When we know our true selves, we empower ourselves to practice compassion toward others. It is also the beginning of accepting God’s grace in our lives.

—Pastor Fogal

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