Key Scriptures: Acts 16: 16-40, Romans 12:15, I Corinthians 12:26, Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 13:3, Acts 8:3, Matthew 7:12, I Peter 3:8, and John 21
Guiding Question: How can empathy help us love others like we love ourselves?
Optional Introductory Activity: Ask the students to share about a movie, news story or book that made them sad or had them cheering for someone they didn’t know or wasn’t even teal. (You may want to share a clip from Chariots of Fire or other inspirational movie to get them started.) Ask the students why they think they were able to feel such strong emotions about something that didn’t happen to them (or in the case of fiction, didn’t actually happen at all).
Lesson: (Questions for the students are in bold italics) Read Acts 16:16-40. Often we use this story to talk about how Paul and Silas were able to worship God while they were in jail or how the jailer became a Christian. Today though, let’s focus on something else. Why do you think Paul said, “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here”? According to Roman law jailers whose prisoners escaped had to suffer the punishment of the escaped prisoner(s). Since the jailer assumed that all of the prisoners had left he probably thought death at his own hands was preferable to death by torture by the Romans. We don’t know if Paul could see the jailer. It doesn’t matter because Paul showed empathy and love for this man and his family; this man shackled him and kept him in prison. Paul was concerned about this man’s life and what would happen if he died.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings of another. Read Romans 12:15, I Corinthians 12:26, Galatians 6:2 and Hebrews 13:3. What do these verses tell us how we should empathize with others? It’s important to realize what was happening during this time. Read Acts 8:3. At first the Jews like Saul persecuted Christians. Then after Rome burned in 64 AD, the Emperor blamed the Christians for the fire he probably started. Paul and Peter were both killed during that first Roman persecution. The deaths often involved torture. There were also earthquakes, famines and other unsettling events. On top of all of that there would have been every day events like Marriage, childbirth, illness and death. Why would the New Testament writers feel it was necessary to remind the Christians to be empathetic towards each other?
Sometimes when something really good or bad happens to someone else we find it difficult to be empathetic and feel what they are feeling. Why? Can you give some examples from everyday life? When we can’t feel empathy towards someone going through a good time or a bad time, what could be the negative consequences for the church? Read Matthew 7:12 and I Peter 3:8. Why are these versed important? How can our ability to be empathetic help us obey these verses?
Remember in the lesson on prejudice when we discussed the emotional distance between people? If the distance is too great, our brain no longer sees that person as a human being with a soul. We won’t be passionate about serving that person or helping them get to heaven. Empathy is one of the ways to shrink thank distance.
Empathy helps us imagine what life is really like for another person. It helps us understand what makes them happy, sad or angry. We don’t have to agree with their choices – especially if they are sinful – to be empathetic.
Read John 21. Normally, we talk about Jesus forgiving Peter or Jesus getting Peter ready for the future. Look at it again though how does this chapter show Jesus’ empathy for Peter? How might this chapter be written if Jesus had no empathy for Peter at all?
Jesus knew Peter’s heart. He knew even though Peter was thrilled Jesus had risen from the dead. He was miserable for having denied Jesus. Jesus could have ignored it or told Peter when he first saw him he forgave him. Instead Jesus did something to show he loved and trusted Peter. Jesus repeated His first encounter with Peter and fixed him and others breakfast. He knew Peter would understand the empathy and love Jesus had for him through these actions.
Notice though, that Jesus doesn’t avoid teaching Peter how to grow or preparing him for the future. He even corrects Peter when Peter questions why his future will be tough (What about John?). Empathy makes us passionate about helping others get to heaven, even if it is uncomfortable.
Skills Activity: (Empathy can be a difficult Christian life skill to teach. Students raised by parents who are empathetic may already have strong empathy skills for their age. Their main empathy issues will most likely stem from lack of life experience. Students raised in environments with little empathy may need a lot of practice in this area with a lot of additional help processing their thoughts and feelings.)