Currently, there is some discussion at Baylor University about considering “empathy” as an ideal character strength for undergraduate students. That discussion made me wonder why we talk about empathy as a virtue in Christian circles. After all, it is not a biblical word (of course that does not mean it is not a Christian virtue). Instead, the closest virtue in the Bible is compassion. Is there an important difference between empathy and compassion?
As someone who moved to the South, I am not surprised that southerners think so. In a study reviewing state laws naming virtues K-12 educators should teach children, I found some states listed only compassion (e.g., Arizona and Iowa), while two southern states listed both compassion and empathy (Texas and Virginia).
The Oxford-English Dictionary (OED) helps us get our bearings regarding the differences between the two. Empathy, a relatively new word, came into use in 1903— from a psychologist’s translation of a German word. It simply means: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience.”
In light of its origins, it is not surprising that psychologists have developed various measures related to this ability. For example, one large study recently confirmed what most astute people already know: In general, women are better at this skill than men—the skill being “the ability to recognize what another person is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their state of mind with an appropriate emotion” (although who determines what is “appropriate” is important). Not surprisingly, marriage books are full of advice to husbands that point out that often one’s wife simply wants empathy first and not problem-solving solutions when expressing a feeling.
Compassion is a much older English word (used as early as 1340) and has a long history from the Latin of being associated with both God and the Christian tradition (the OED notes that the Latin was used by church fathers Tertullian and Jerome). The OED defines it as “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.” It also gives a Biblical reference from the 1535 Coverdale version as an example of its early use, “The Lorde..is..longe sufferynge & of greate compassion” (Joel 2:12).
Certainly, there is an extensive biblical tradition to consider when understanding compassion. The Bible constantly describes the triune God as compassionate (Ex. 22:27, 34:6; Dt. 30:3; II Kings 13:23; II Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17, 19, 27-28; Ps. 86:15; Ps. 103:4, 8, 13, etc. Mt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34, etc.). And we too, as God’s image bearers, are admonished to demonstrate that same compassion (Eph. 4;32; Col. 3:12; I Peter 3:8). In contrast, we do not commonly talk about God as empathetic nor do modern translators ever imply that we are told in the Bible to imitate God by being empathetic (although as the creator of emotions God is certainly the most empathetic being).
Although both empathy and compassion involve a particular skill related to feelings or emotions, two key differences between empathy and compassion exist. First, compassion comes from another person’s legitimate suffering or distress whereas empathy involves relating to a variety of emotional states whether fallen or not. For example, I recently heard a high-strung man on the bus complain to his partner about the hassle of using this particular “f…ing app.” His female partner empathized, “That’s frustrating.”
Second, compassion stimulates action to alleviate the need. One sees this last quality of compassion most clearly in the life of Jesus. Jesus does not simply empathize. Jesus has compassion in the face of legitimate suffering or distress and then from that compassion acts immediately to alleviate the suffering or problem. Here are a few verses from each of the synoptic gospels that illustrate both Jesus and God’s compassion (the last through the parable of the Prodigal Son):
- When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Mt. 14:14).
- When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:34)
- So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
Interestingly, what wives often do not realize is that when their husbands propose action solutions to a feeling or thought, they are demonstrating the result of compassion (but perhaps not the necessary empathy component that wives want first).
I would argue that the Christian virtue of compassion requires, not surprisingly, both the feminine strength of empathy and the male concern with problem solving. In other words, empathy by itself is not a Christian virtue since it may be applied to fallen emotions, or it may not lead to action. Compassion produces action to address a problem of legitimate suffering or distress. That is the same compassion by which the triune God transforms the world. We as God’s image bearers should demonstrate such compassion.
My theory is that this important difference explains the limitations of empathy alone, as revealed by two current controversies. In one psychology controversy, those on one side of the debate argue that having a greater degree of empathy will necessarily lead one to greater altruism.1 Yet, as one recent study states, “Behavioral results demonstrated that empathic concern and personal distress predicted the number of prosocial decisions, but in a negative way.”2 Or, as the title of the paper noted, there is a dark side to empathy.
Indeed, surveys reveal that having greater empathy may lead to less sympathy for enforcing certain unpopular moral or legal principles on college campuses, such as freedom of speech. Empathy, in this case, becomes a weapon welded by those concerned about the feelings of the majority who are disturbed by speech from the minority.
In this respect, empathy by itself is like a tool. It can be used properly or improperly. Whether it becomes the Christian virtue of compassion depends upon whether it is directed to God-ordained ends and results in action.
I often see its positive application with my wife, an expert in service. My wife habitually empathizes with others’ suffering (often asking after an emotional movie scene, “How would that make you feel?”). In real life, this empathy leads to compassion in that she moves quickly to action toward God-ordained ends when encountering someone’s need, like Jesus did.
Yet, there are times, I, as the less empathetic one, must remind her that we must do more than merely satisfy the hunger to help alleviate emotional suffering. As I tell my students, Christians should be characterized by thoughtful and directed compassion that enhances human flourishing in the long run, which is God’s compassion. God even makes the uncomfortable but righteous and discerning declaration, “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19).
So how should Baylor or other universities prioritize what they hope to develop in students? Empathy can be a good tool, like various liberal arts including psychology, so we certainly should encourage the development of it. Yet, if our aim is to allow our virtues to be animated by the Christian mission of the university rather than simply the field of psychology—which usually guides and dominates the field of student affairs—we should prioritize helping students learn about, love, imitate, and habituate the triune God’s compassion.
- The topic was first discussed in C.D. Batson, M.H. Bolen, J.A. Cross, & H.E. Neuringer-Benefiel, “Where is the Altruism in the Altruistic Personality?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 (1986): 212–220.
- Michael Schaefer, Anja Kühnel, Franziska Rumpel, and Matti Gärtner. “Do Empathic Individuals Behave More Prosocially? Neural Correlates for Altruistic Behavior in the Dictator Game and the Dark Side of Empathy.” Brain Sciences 11, no. 7 (2021): 863–.