Cultivating empathy to love others like Jesus

“We are born to empathise and wired for social connection.” – Roman Krznaric, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It

We live in a divided world. Scroll through your social media feed and it won’t be long before you see division in action. People boldly share their opinions and shun opposing views. Because if they don’t agree with you, they’ve got to be wrong – right? We see arguments break out in comment threads on Facebook posts as keyboard warriors rise (or rather, “sink”) to the opportunity to war with words.

Despite the division we see around us, there’s also much that unites us. You only need to look for it. And when you do, you’ll be surprised at what you discover. Though it’s almost become a norm in society, disunity goes against our nature as humans.

When it comes to empathy, there’s a lot we can learn from how Jesus loved others.

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We were created by God for relationships. To love and to be loved. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37-40). He followed with the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbour. Put simply, we’re commanded to love God and love people. It’s our responsibility as humans, especially as believers, to steward our relationships in a way that honours God.

How do we do that? Empathy.

Jesus – the master empath

Empathy is the ability to understand what others feel, see things from their perspective and respond appropriately. It’s a powerful quality that helps us build rapport with almost anyone from almost anywhere. It’s at the heart of human connection and builds a bridge to understanding others we may even disagree with.

Keeping the peace is passive. Making peace is active. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone and having a conversation.

But building a bridge takes work – the work of a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). Being a peacemaker is more than keeping the peace. Keeping the peace is passive. Making peace is active. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone and having a conversation. Sometimes, those conversations are uncomfortable.

Not too long after Jesus tells us we’re blessed when we make peace, he asks us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It seems counterintuitive, right? It’s the opposite of what the world would say we should do. To love our enemies demands the grace of God, by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. But it also requires something on our part: empathy.

During his time on earth, Jesus was the master empath. And when it comes to empathy, there’s a lot we can learn from how Jesus loved others.

Empathy in action

Throughout the New Testament, we read stories of Jesus loving people who were forgotten, marginalised or seen as “less than”. We see this in action in the story of the woman at the well (John 4). At a time when Jews didn’t interact with Samaritans, Jesus intentionally led his disciples through Samaria to get to Galilee. There, he met a Samaritan woman who had been married five times and was living with a man who was not her husband. Her identity, gender and lifestyle made her an outcast. To others, she was one to avoid. To Jesus, she was a person to love. Jesus saw her pain, rejection and desire for connection. He fulfilled that desire and so much more.

Jesus asks us to love the people in our world in the same way (John 13:34). The way we love others sets us apart as followers of Jesus. And practising empathy is a good start. It says to the other person, “I see you, I hear you and I want to understand you.”

Here are three simple ways we can practice empathy and love as Jesus did:

1. Imagine yourself walking in their shoes

Empathy is making the effort to imagine yourself in another person’s position – “simulating” their thoughts, emotions and experiences. Consider things from their point of view. Sometimes, empathy is simply sitting with someone and being there for them in their pain, wonder, frustration, joy, confusion or disappointment.

2. Be curious and ask questions

Be curious and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. Ask open-ended questions and make the conversation about them, not you. Jesus had a firm handle on asking questions. In fact, he was famous for responding to a question with a question. Frustrating? Maybe. But by doing so, he quickly opened the window to a person’s thoughts and uncovered their perspectives.

3. Listen. Really listen

Follow James’ advice and be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). How many times have you caught yourself thinking about how you’re going to respond while the other person is still speaking? I’m as guilty of this as the next person. When we do this, we miss the opportunity to truly hear their heart and understand why they think, say and do what they do.

Let me share an example of empathy in action that’s closer to home. A few months ago, I met my new neighbours. As I walked across the street, with a plant in hand, I had an agenda. You see, for weeks this neighbour’s kids were being noisy and rowdy on the street. This would happen as I was winding down at the end of my workday. And it happened every night, like clockwork.

I thought maybe if I met them, they’d be more considerate of other neighbours. Wishful thinking. Nothing changed. Except for one thing – my attitude. Now that I’ve met these kids, know them by name and heard their stories, they seem less … annoying. Each time I hear shrieks as they play in the front yard, I imagine myself in their shoes. Enjoying the simple things with their siblings in a safe and happy environment. It’s the kind of childhood not every person is blessed to have. So, I let them have it.

Practising empathy isn’t just for the naturally inclined or self-appointed empaths. It’s a quality we’re called to cultivate in our everyday lives – through our thoughts, actions and conversations. Empathy unites.