Empathy as Practice | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
September 2014

Empathy as Practice

By: Kyle Wyman

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. - 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

What are we called to do when we are in the midst of suffering? According to Peter, we are called to persevere by finding solidarity with one another and clinging to the hope of God’s glory through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, none of that seems terribly practical, does it? For myself, I am a man of self-reliance. If I have a problem or an issue, I need to talk about it, but mainly just want to keep it to myself. I’m not averse to talking about it, but I prefer to keep things close to the chest. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that this policy extends to God as well. I’m not a praying man, so the idea of turning to God in prayer is not a concept that comes naturally to me.

In 5:7, the author of the letter tells us to “cast all anxiety” upon God because he cares for us. Furthermore, in 5:9 he exhorts us to take heart in the fact that others in the faith are undergoing similar suffering. When you have a problem, do you not turn to a friend, especially if that friend has had a similar experience? Commonality is the ground of empathy, but empathy is like a muscle. If it is not properly stretched, strengthened, and utilized it can become weak or injured.

For me, finding ways to get that empathetic workout is the challenge of this text. As someone who feels he is self-reliant, it is not easy to turn to others for help. As such, it can be uncomfortable when people turn to me for help; empathy, like apathy, is a practiced sentiment. While we all naturally have compassion, being able to put ourselves out there for other people only comes through determination and hard work. The author warns us that the devil is like a roaring lion looking to devour us when we are most vulnerable. Why? I think it is because when we are most vulnerable we turn to the things that make us feel good when they may not be good for us. Loneliness can be an isolating experience.

Therefore, the challenge before us as Christians is to practice empathy for one another. We can do this in little ways. If you suddenly think of a friend or acquaintance, call them up and see how they are doing. A passing thought could turn into an unexpected encounter with grace. If there is something you know a friend likes or appreciates, give them something that reminds them of those things.

Empathy is the power to see the world through new eyes. We see the interconnectedness of all beings and we respond by reaching out into the vast world to find another hand in fellowship. My advice is that in order to cast your anxiety on God, don’t just turn to prayer alone, but pray with other people who love you and will hold you accountable. Find small ways to have empathy for friends and strangers alike, and you will find small paths to grace.

Discussion Questions: Reflect on the ways you practice empathy. Has there been a moment recently where you have showed empathy for another person, and they for you? Practice this moment with someone you don’t know and see what fruit it yields.

See more devotions from Kyle and our other Young Adult writers, or find our how you can become a writer yourself at our By Young Adults for Young Adults devotion page.