Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes – Why?

Recently I put up a two page document on Role Playing as a Bible Teaching Method in the MinTools.com store.  Having students role play a situation helps them develop problem solving skills but also empathy.  They must “put themselves in someone else’s shoes.”

Exercising empathy would help with much church conflict. 

When we look at a situation from only our own perspective or experience base, we risk assigning wrong motives or misinterpreting the feelings, actions, or reactions of others.

When we seek to put ourselves in their shoes, we gain an understanding that often helps us be more patient and supportive of others.

Scriptural Basis for Empathy:

The word “empathy” is not used in the Bible but verses do point to our need for it as we relate to one another.

  1. God Himself empathizes with the people He created.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14)
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. (Ps. 139:1-3)
  1. Jesus modeled empathy when he lived on this earth among people and continues to empathize.  Many verses point to His compassion which is an essential part of empathy, leading Him to do something about what He perceived.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them … (Matt. 9:36)
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.  (Matt. 14:14)
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. … Jesus wept.  (Jn. 11:33, 35)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.   (2 Cor. 8:9)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
  1. Empathy is a part of walking in love as God loves.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us … (Eph. 5:1-2)
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  (Matt. 7:12)
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:39)
  1. Body Life demands we empathize with one another.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Rom. 12:15)
… so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor. 12:25-26)
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:32)
being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  (Phil. 2:2-4)
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  (1 Pet. 3:8)
  1. Effectively reaching out to others requires us to put ourselves in their shoes.
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:22) … We must conclude that Paul did not literally become all things in every situation but that he identified with them which requires empathy.

An upcoming post will look at how to empathize.

10 Replies to “Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes – Why?”

  1. You appear to be confusing compassion and sympathy with empathy. The word empathy is not found in the Bible for good reason: one cannot actually put oneself in someone else’s shoes. One might consider what it would be like to be faced with a similar challenge, but to actually be in that person’s shoes would require having the same experiences, emotional make up, and cognitive abilities as the suffering person. Empathy is the wrong word. Consequently, the post is misleading.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Colin. I agree that we can never fully put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Two people walking through the same exact circumstances can have different perceptions due to differences in personalities, backgrounds, etc. as you mentioned. Yet, we would do well to at least try to have this kind of understanding. If you do a careful re-read of the post you’ll see that compassion and empathy are not being interchanged with empathy. Rather, the post notes that compassion “is an essential part of empathy.” The verses provided are not necessarily about empathy but rather “point to our need for it as we relate to one another.” While you may have sympathy toward the person and certainly should be motivated by love and compassion, empathy is more about gaining a better understanding about the person’s situation by “putting yourself in their shoes”, as much as is possible.

      • You can’t put yourself in your neighbors’ shoes if they don’t share what it is they’re suffering from. So in essence empathy is a man made addition to compassion. That is why it’s not in the Bible. We are to have compassion for one another, which sums up everything we need to know and have.

        • To be sure, we will never fully understand what someone is going through if we haven’t been in the same circumstances ourselves. That still doesn’t excuse us from reaching out and trying to understand or acknowledge what they’re going through. We read in Scripture that Jesus saw the needs of people and had compassion (Matt. 9:36; 14:14). We’re probably not going to have compassion unless we first “see” the needs of others, whatever you want to call that.

  2. There is a difference and power between empathy and sympathy. Here is an example. A man actively hates homosexuality and speaks against it often. He has a son whom he loves and the son in turn has a son he loves. The grandson declares he is gay and denial, anger, pain and sorrow follow the announcement. The son, loves his son and embraces him with love. The grandfather is now in a position to see his love or rejection of his son and grandson from a position of “empathy”. I believe our salvation is rooted in empathy, in other words loving beyond what we are able without Jesus.(love).

    • If anyone could empathize, it’s Jesus. Love drove Him to live on this earth in a human body, experience temptation, loss, rejection, and so much more. In all of it He never sinned so He could be our perfect, holy sacrifice in our place.

  3. Hebrews 4:13-16 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need

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