This piece accompanies a longer feature Broadview published this week on the science of empathy.
The Christian worldview is in line with much of the scientific research on empathy. Many Christian thinkers endorse the notion that empathy is innate to humans.
God imbues us with limitless and unconditional love right from birth, North Carolina-based non-denominational pastor John Pavlovitz says. This relationship makes us feel seen and understood, and equips us to respond to others.
But it’s not enough to empathize, social worker Denis Costello, executive director of Catholic Family Services in Toronto, says. “You actually then have to do something,” he says. In several Biblical passages, Christ first discerns the distress of his followers, then alleviates their pain. In the story of Lazarus, Christ is “deeply moved” when he sees Lazarus’ sister Mary crying by the roadside, and this spurs him to resurrect the dead man.
Though these Biblical stories showcase an impossibly high standard for compassion, Christians are expected to emulate Christ’s actions as closely as they can, Pavlovitz says. Throughout the Bible, we are urged to pay forward God’s compassion for us.
Philippians 2:1-3 says: “Therefore if you have any … comfort from (Christ’s) love, … then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love.”
Cultivating compassion is easier when you’ve suffered your own trials, Pavlovitz says. In the story about the multiplication of the loaves, Christ looks at the crowd with concern, noting that night is fast approaching and his listeners will need to eat. The son of God and travelling preacher had experienced hunger while wandering in strange lands, and this understanding could have prompted the miracle, says Pavlovitz.
But the practice of compassion remains challenging for most of us, Costello says. Self-absorption, which takes our attention away from the outside world and directs it to our inner preoccupations, is one of the biggest barriers.
Regular spiritual practices can keep our egos in check, he says. Penitential prayers, for instance, remind you of your faults. Meditation, art or nature can also connect you to a world beyond yourself.
But ultimately, compassion boils down to a decision we have to make every time. We are all instinctively moved by another’s anguish, Pavlovitz says. But we can turn away from this impulse. Alternatively, we can harness our vicarious distress by helping the victim.
Although these choices are difficult, making them gives our lives meaning, Pavlovitz says. “We’re not just part of some movie that’s already finished – we co-create our lives with God.”
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