Question: "What is an empath? What does it mean to be empathic?"
Answer: The word empath comes from the word empathy, which is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” An empathetic person is one who can intuitively sense what someone else feels and imagine what it would be like to feel those feelings. An empathic person, on the other hand, is one who actually experiences the emotions of another, even becoming physically affected by those emotions and possibly knowing the motivations behind a person’s feelings or actions. Empathic abilities have to do with sensing “body energies,” “vibes,” and other esoteric forces. The concept of being an empath primarily comes out of New Age mysticism coupled with bits of modern science (some biological, some psychological) of how emotions affect our bodies.
Empaths are not mentioned in the Bible, but the Bible does have some relevant things to say. As Christians, we gauge whether something is true by Scripture (John 17:17; Psalm 119:160; 2 Timothy 3:16). This is important in this discussion because those who promote the idea of being an empath generally gauge truth by emotion. While emotions are not innately bad (in fact, they are a part of how God made us), they should not be our foundation of truth for three reasons: our hearts cannot be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9), emotions are fickle (Psalm 42:1–5), and emotions were never meant to lead us (Psalm 119:105; Romans 8:14).
The concept of the empath, or one having empathic abilities, is explored heavily in science fiction and accepted by many New Age philosophies. For example, Deanna Troi, a fictional character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was a half-human with empathic abilities, which aided her work as a counselor. According to Trek lore, Troi’s mother was from an alien race of empaths. An empath also shows up in an episode of the original series of Star Trek. Those characters and their storylines further New Age and occult notions.
To lend better understanding to the term empathic, we can compare it to the word telepathic. Theoretically, a telepath would be able to literally hear the thoughts of another person inside his own mind. Just as theoretically, an empath would literally feel the feelings of another person. Within the New Age movement, empaths are generally defined as extra-sensitive beings who can experience the emotions of any person—or animal—standing nearby, regardless of context or knowledge. This understanding is of course very subjective and is on the level of supposed psychic abilities that some claim to have.
The claim that empaths can perceive the physical sensitivities and spiritual urges of others is a characteristic shared by many in the occult. No one except God has the ability to perceive the motivations and intentions of someone else (Psalm 139; John 2:25; 1 Corinthians 2:10–11). First Corinthians 2:11 says, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them?” We are not given that insight.
Of course, empathy, or the ability to listen to, understand, and relate to the emotions of others, is a valuable gift, and there is nothing unbiblical about the idea of carrying another person’s burdens, emotional or otherwise (Galatians 6:2). In fact, God’s Spirit is described as a comforter of the suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–6). But claiming the powers of an empath goes beyond proper compassion and godly sensitivity and enters the realm of the psychic.