Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;” -Exodus 34:6
Compassion is a central characteristic used to describe God in heaven. Compassion is a characteristic He desires to impart to us. He utilizes compassion as one of the vehicles to galvanize his followers to alleviate the suffering or needy people in this world.
Jesus was described as being compassionate frequently in the gospels. When we look at how Jesus acted when he had compassion on someone, it is easy to see that compassion could be defined as empathy in action. Jesus was speaking of compassion when he commanded his disciples to love their neighbor as themselves. In order to love someone like you want to be loved, it means understanding they have the same wants and needs as you do. This means putting yourself in another’s shoes. Empathy is the ability to see things through another person’s eyes and imagine what they are feeling. Having empathy is a prerequisite to have compassion.
More and more people are stating they struggle with having empathy for others. A lack of empathy can be one of the biggest obstacles we face when attempting to grow in compassion. God wants and needs us to develop in empathy, and therefore compassion, as Christ followers and leaders.
Jesus led people with compassion. He taught us how to lead with compassion through his example. It all starts with empathy.
We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we don’t imagine ourselves in our neighbor’s situation.
Empathy can be developed through prayer and conscientious effort. Here are some ways a person can develop more empathy in their life:
- Listen hard to what others are saying as you interact with them and be truly curious about them.
- Try to “step in someone’s shoes” for a few minutes at first and then slowly expand the time you spend imagining what it is like to be that person.
There are many examples in scripture of Jesus desiring to develop empathy and compassion in his leaders. The Good Samaritan story is a perfect example of this as found in Luke 10:25-27. There are three types of leaders represented in this story.
- The priest represents those who are busy serving God through full-time ministry. This particular priest was either not attuned to those around him or he did not want to take a chance of being defiled by a dead body or needing to take the time to care for someone he did not know. He passed by on the other side.
- The Levite represents those who are teachers and leaders but not necessarily on staff at a church. He also went by on the other side. He may have had a pressing appointment or been so busy composing an argument or message. The choice to not stop and help was just that, though – a choice. He went by on the other side. This implies crossing the road to avoid getting involved.
- The Samaritan represents those people most under-qualified to serve God. His training and background would be seen as lacking in most churches. Jesus deliberately used this to highlight that head knowledge and pedigree is not what impresses God. What elevates the Samaritan to a leading level was his actions, not his abilities or leadership standing.
Jesus was teaching that empathy in action (compassion) is more laudable than knowledge and busyness in serving him. Let’s agree to focus on what he focused on – loving our neighbors as ourselves.