Having empathy for someone you disagree with can be difficult. It’s unfathomable to assume we will always agree with everyone all of the time. So how do we empathize with others when we don’t agree with what they are saying, how they are living, or with the choices they are making?
Being intentionally empathetic with those we disagree with helps us build a bridge toward healed relationships, hearts, and lives.
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1. Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
One way to empathize with others we disagree with is to put ourselves in their shoes, and try to see things through their eyes, from their perspective.
“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV
Jesus did that for us. He walked the same earth, dealt with the same people, suffered the same persecutions, and was put to the test in the same ways as we are (and much, much worse).
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15 ESV
2. Try to Understand Why They Are Doing What They Are Doing
Often, the harmful choices people make result from their own pain, immaturity, and ignorance. Rather than automatically judging them, assuming they should know better, pause for a moment to consider that they may not even know what they are doing is wrong.
“And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” John 16:3
If we make the effort to fully understand their situation before correcting them, we can empathetically enable them to work toward repentance, just as Jesus does for us:
“And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” 2 Timothy 2:24-26
3. Remember Our Own Faults
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? ” Luke 6:41 ESV
When we look introspectively, we can see our own struggles with similar issues, whether currently or in the past.
For example, if your child is sneaking around behind your back, you have the right to be disappointed; however, as you recall yourself at that age, you may remember how you behaved similarly, helping you to be empathic toward your child.
Just because we disagree with them, it does not make us better than them. As we remember our own faults, it keeps us in check, so we do not think too highly of ourselves.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3 ESV
4. Give Them Grace
Often, we disagree with someone because of a high expectation we put on them. Maybe we put this high expectation on ourselves, and we expect others to live up to that same standard.
“Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” 2 Corinthians 11:29 ESV
Jesus was the only perfect person to ever walk this earth, but He didn’t come here to judge us for not being as perfect as He. So why, then, do we place our so-called standards on others?
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17 ESV
I truly want to believe the expectations we place on others come from a good place, a good heart. We want the people we love to live up to their full potential, but instead of encouraging them, we only burden them with guilt and shame. When the bar is set so high, and they fear they can never live up to that standard, they will eventually give up, assuming nothing will make us happy.
Instead, we should imitate Jesus when He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 ESV
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5. Comfort and Encourage Them
When someone you care about is doing something you disagree with, comforting and encouraging them may not be at the forefront of your mind; however, this empathetic approach may yield more results than being pushy and disagreeable.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV
Again, we’ve all walked the same roads in life. As you reflect on similar situations, you may be able to find ways to empathize with them.
Ask God to help you find the right words to build them up and encourage them so that you can lead them toward the right path and better decision-making.
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29 ESV
6. Feel Their Pain
Even in their bad decision-making and self-destructiveness, recognize that their choices may come from a place of pain, whether they realize it or not.
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 1 John 3:17 ESV
I have heard the phrase “hurt[ing] people hurt people,” all throughout my life, and I have even taught it to my own children when they have been bullied at school. We discuss the idea that maybe this classmate has a difficult home life, and bullying others helps them cope. It’s their way of “reaching out.” In so doing, my children have actually befriended their bullies and in turn, helped them learn a better way of dealing with their situation.
As we attempt to understand why people do the things they do, we learn it is often not personal at all but, on the contrary, stems from a root problem in their core.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” 1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV
If we can understand their pain, we can feel their pain and, therefore, discover how to help them find their way back to the heart of God.
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” Philippians 4:14 ESV
7. Have Compassion
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18 ESV
Compassion is empathy in action. Compassion asks, “How can I help?”.
Compassion is a direct result of the feelings we have for others when we see them hurting. Since we have already recognized that most people acting in these undesirable ways are hurting, once we dig in and find the root cause, we can work with compassion.
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” 1 John 3:16 ESV
However, when you disagree with what someone has done or said to you, finding it in your heart to be compassionate may be difficult. Compassion toward someone you disagree with goes against our natural instinct. That is why we must look to those who do it well.
Compassion is best represented by Jesus and the way He treated others—even the ones who hurt Him:
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 ESV
8. Pray for Them
We can also pray for God to help us see others through His eyes.
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” 1 Peter 3:8 ESV
When I don’t quite know how to deal with a person, I have found the best approach is to take it to God and let Him handle the situation. In these moments, my love for that person abounds, as I start to see them in the same way God sees all of us.
While on the cross, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34 ESV
It also helps to admit that we have little to no control over the people in our lives. If they are straying down the wrong path, making bad choices, and saying words that hurt the ones who love them, there’s not a lot we can do to convince them to turn their lives around.
Trying to control the situation only makes things worse and could possibly damage your relationship with them. God has the power to work in these types of situations in mysterious ways, making prayer the best method.
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” Isaiah 30:18 ESV
Empathy is the Bridge to Restoration
Empathy is the bridge to restoration. It helps us connect with others even when we disagree with them, giving us insight into loving others unconditionally.
Ultimately, empathy helps us love others the way Christ loves us.
Even in our brokenness, He scoops us up and restores us back to Him.
He doesn’t require us to be perfect to be in His presence. No, He meets us where we are and shows us the way back to His heart.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV
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Originally published Wednesday, 21 September 2022.