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What is empathy? It's similar to sympathy but at a more personal level. Empathy is our ability to understand the emotions of others from their perspective. Some of us have more naturally empathetic instincts, and others have to work harder to develop sensitivity. Empathy urges us toward compassion, but it doesn't automatically make us kind. More and more, I see praise for people who voice their empathy, even if their actions don't back it up. God may judge our hearts rather than our actions, yet, following Jesus is about more than our feelings and thoughtful words. Kindness requires action. Empathy certainly helps us to act with kindness, but it doesn't determine it. If your feelings tell you that you don't care, that doesn't mean you should act callously. We don't always control our emotional responses, but we do have control over our actions.
"Dear children, let us love not with words and speech, but in action and in truth." - 1 John 3:18
So what is kindness?
The common definition of kindness is “a quality or state of a sympathetic or helpful nature.” The Bible describes kindness as something inherent to God that does not come naturally to us. Through God's kindness, we receive mercy and a purpose to love others. Kindness is not the same as niceness. We can always find selfish reasons to act nice. When we want to gain something or want people to think of us a certain way, we don't have to show love to reflect niceness. For example, there are times when I'll say something polite or offer sympathy for someone for the sake of my own emotional comfort. But when I decide to act with kindness, it requires heartfelt effort for the sake of someone else. God is not “nice.” He tells us the hard truths and shows us the damage of our sin. Yet, God is kind and offers His grace and love no matter what. He portrays the ultimate picture of that kindness in Jesus. Through the self-sacrifice of Jesus, we can see that kindness is not about how we feel or about how others approve. Jesus is the perfect example of empathy and kindness, as He knows all our pain and loves us so much that He sacrificed Himself to rescue us. The more we follow Jesus, the more we will see others the way He does. And to do so, we must choose kindness in every case.
"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." - Ephesians 4:32
What kindness entails will vary every day. Sometimes kindness means honesty in response to a tough situation. Other times, it may mean taking time to help someone when there is no obligation. And many times, kindness is the choice to do something that requires grace instead of entitlement. It's natural for empathy to surround selfishness when it's all about how the feelings of others affect us. Most of us wouldn't feel empathy toward someone who rear-ended us on the road, but we can still be kind to that person. Does that mean we shouldn't hold them accountable? No. We also shouldn't respond with hostility, even if we think that will make us feel better. Kindness goes hand in hand with selflessness. We think that empathy comes first, and then kindness, but really it's the other way around. When we ask God to lead us to kind decisions, we will begin to understand empathy through the lens of selflessness.
"Do to others as you would have them do to you." - Luke 6:31
No matter how much we talk about what something means or how we should live, it's often hard for us to fully grasp principles without action-based examples. So here are a few glimpses into the life of Jesus and how He offered kindness to all sorts of people:
Jesus dines with a tax collector - This is one of my favorite stories partially because I sang the song about it repeatedly as a child. It is a wonderful example of how Jesus chose to embrace someone, despite their sins and reputation. Jesus knew that people would look down on Him for socializing with Zacchaeus, but He only cared about sharing God's love.
Jesus washes the disciples' feet - This passage makes it clear how Jesus wants us to humble ourselves to love as He does. Jesus says, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." We don't literally have to wash each other's feet, but we do need to get real and messy in our service to others.
Jesus shows love for His tormentors - In one of the most moving examples of Jesus' grace, He demonstrated compassion even as He faced crucifixion. Imagine that people are sentencing you to death and mocking you, and your response is to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Because we are not perfect, we do not have that capacity for forgiveness. However, the more we strive to get closer to that example, the more we share the kindness of God.
Written Content Coordinator at Sun Valley Community Church. An avid writer since the age of 5, who loves to explore new ideas and places. Inspired by Jesus, books, and travel.