Nehemiah was an empathic man. In Nehemiah 1:4, he writes, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” He did not witness the disaster in Jerusalem, nor did he personally know those suffering there. Yet his heart broke for the trouble occurring among God’s people. He spent days fasting and praying, asking God to show steadfast love and mercy to those in need. He felt deeply what the remnant in Jerusalem felt. But how does a person develop the art of empathy like Nehemiah?
Empathy does not come naturally to the human heart. Everything in us longs to avoid pain and struggle, while empathy draws us into pain for the sake of others. Empathy is costly because it requires that we step into another person’s situation to meet a need. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy, a difference that Nehemiah understood. I like to describe this difference with an analogy:
You have a friend who’s been imprisoned. If you sympathize with your friend, you may go to the jail and visit her by sitting behind the glass and talking into a telephone. You can see her, but you can’t touch her. You are reaching out to her, but you retain a safe distance for your own protection. If you empathize with your friend, you ask the jailer to unlock her cell. You enter the tiny room and sit with her on her cot. You smell what she smells, you see what she sees, you allow yourself to be imprisoned with her for a short time. By entering her jail cell, you can really understand her situation.
Nehemiah empathized with the Jews in Jerusalem. Not only did he ask forgiveness for their sin, but he also numbered himself and his family with those who had sinned. He recognized that he was no different from them. Empathy for others begins when we see ourselves rightly before a holy God. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
When we understand our state of utter desolation without God’s grace, we are free to empathize with those who are hurting or imprisoned by sin. If I am free from the prison of my sin, it is only because the Father has seen fit to free me. Therefore, I have a responsibility as His ambassador to sit in the cells of those who are still imprisoned.
If you struggle to empathize with others, ask the Lord to give you opportunities to sit with someone in pain. Ask Him to allow you to feel what someone else feels. There is no pressure to fix the situation. Usually what a person needs most is the ministry of presence, not a quick solution. Empathy is a healing balm to those who are struggling, and our heavenly Father has equipped us for this ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.