Empathy and Compassion

Heart to heart
Heart to heart communication

Most of my blog postings have been about passing on information. Communication is mainly mind-to-mind. I have used words, figures and pictures. But I do not just wish to supply information, I want you to capture something of my heart, and through that, the heart of God.

I need a form of communication which is heart-to-heart rather than just mind-to-mind.

  • If I was a poet, I could use poetry.
  • If I was an artist I could use paintings or photographs.
  • If I was a musician I could use music.

But I’m not much of a poet, an artist, or a musician so I have to resort to words to try to express what is in my heart. As you read my posts, please do not just read the words, but listen to my heart.

Listen to my heart, listen to it sing.
Listen to my voice, it wants to tell you everything.
There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start.
But if you want to know the love I’m feeling,
Listen to my heart.
(Sung by Lamott Nancy)

Different People

I have to admit that I am an introvert. Introverts can seem aloof and not caring. But though I cannot always express it verbally, I feel deeply when others suffer, whether physically, mentally or spiritually.

Christine (my wife) and I are very different. God has given me the gift(?) of being able to take the world on my shoulders and feel something of his heart for the world. If there is a programme on television about a famine somewhere in the world, I feel compelled to watch the programme, whereas Christine wants to turn it off. And yet, when it comes to an individual need, Christine is more ready to care and help.

I remember once listening to the radio on my way to work. There is a story about a couple whose marriage was breaking up and something of the anguish they felt came over through what was said. Suddenly my mind started multiplying by millions. As a story, just one couple was involved. But knowing that millions of couples face the same agony really got to me. Tears streamed down my face as I drove.

Years ago, I travelled to Cambodia, and visited the torture museum. I was compelled to go because I wanted to identify with the Cambodians in their suffering under the Pol Pot regime. The illiterate majority was sent out into the killing fields where most of them were murdered by the regime. Anyone who was educated, (and wearing glasses, was considered proof of this), was sent to this centre where they were tortured. The museum was plastered with thousands of photographs of individuals. They were without hope, their faces were blank and the cumulative effect was overwhelming.

But I realise that not everybody is the same as me. In my charity fundraising experience people show compassion in various ways. Some would say, “as long as it helps somebody, somewhere”. Others would focus on the individual, for example an orphan in Albania. So whether we focus on “the big picture” or particular individuals we can all have empathy and show compassion.

Definitions of Empathy

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. (Psychology Today)

Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being. (Wikipedia)

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning. (www.diffen.com)

Empathy – Always show consideration for other people’s situation, needs, feelings and perceptions. Try to understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (From a friends Facebook status)

Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion

Empathy goes far beyond sympathy. Sympathy can be simply feeling sorry for other people, and can sometimes be condescending and demeaning – although it can lead to action and compassion.

Empathy involves our minds and our emotions. Perhaps we have had a similar experience. But even if we haven’t we can learn empathy through an openness of heart and mind. We can learn to understand what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes without necessarily having had the same experience.

Empathy on its own can sometimes be enough to really help somebody. People are crying out to be heard and understood. Knowing that another human being really understands what they’re going through can bring comfort and encouragement.

But sometimes empathy is not enough. If we are able to do something practical to help the other person then empathy leads to compassion.

Compassion is active. Compassion is empathy in action. Compassion involves more than a heartfelt response: it means reaching out to the other person and helping them in a practical way

Learning Empathy and Compassion

“According to Jesus compassion is something you learn before you can feel it.” (From a Facebook friend’s status)

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13 NIV)

God wants us to have empathy and show compassion and mercy. These are things which don’t come naturally, but Jesus said go and learn what it needs. To truly learn what empathy and compassion really mean, we need to have renewed and open minds and open hearts.


I have listed a number of situations where we can learn to understand other people, and show compassion where appropriate. We cannot all identify with the whole list but I’m sure that some of the situations in this list will ring true in our hearts and we will be able to say, “Yes, I really understand what they are going through” or we will say, “I really want to help, in a practical way, people in this situation”.

  • People whose marriage is breaking down.
  • Children caught up in divorce proceedings.
  • Those who are struggling with their faith.
  • The agnostic, wanting to believe in a loving God, but who are finding it hard.
  • The lonely.
  • People under a death sentence of a fatal disease, not forgetting their families and friends.
  • Children who go to bed hungry every night.
  • Young people whose lives are wasted due to lack of education.
  • Parents who anguish over the death of their children through malnourishment.
  • Children who have lost their childhood through sexual, physical or mental abuse.
  • People dying needlessly through diseases which could be cured or avoided,
  • The rich and the enormous responsibility they bear.
  • Those who have shut up their hearts, and who suffer the consequences.

If you or I know of somebody, or heard about someone, who fits into one of these categories, we must listen to their hearts, see things from their point of view, comfort and encourage them, and if there is some way we could help, have compassion by meeting their need.


  • Am I speaking from my heart, or am I speaking out of head-knowledge?
  • Can I really understand what other people are going through?
  • Does my life truly reflect what I have put into words, things I understand with my mind, and feel in my heart?

I have tried hard to speak from my heart and not just out of knowledge of the subject. Yes, I can sometimes really understand what other people are thinking and feeling, though at times I do not succeed. Do I live up to these things? The answer has to be, “Yes –  sometimes“, but as I say this, I am aware of many times when I’ve fallen short of my own ideals.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

4 thoughts on “Empathy and Compassion”

  1. Very good George. The example about the difference between you and Chris in how you process things is important. That reflects the variety of gifting that we all need to consider in each other and allow for and make use of. Such is the body of Christ.


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