Question: "What does it mean to be tenderhearted in Ephesians 4:32?"
Answer: The way we treat people matters a great deal to God. Based on Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In addition, we take our cues on how to behave toward others by considering God’s treatment of us. The apostle Paul commands, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, ESV).
In Ephesians 4:32, the word translated as “tenderhearted” is an idiom literally meaning “much bowels.” In the original language, one’s ability to empathize or feel compassion for others was conceived as having the internal feature of ample-sized bowels. A tenderhearted person is easily moved to love, sorrow, and sympathy. Peter uses the same term when he encourages all believers to “sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude” (1 Peter 3:8, NLT).
By His very nature, God is tenderhearted (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15). His infinite compassion toward us is made known throughout the Scriptures: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you. Look, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15–16, HCSB). God’s compassion is rooted in His covenant bond with His people (2 Kings 13:23). The Lord’s unfailing love and tenderhearted mercies for us are renewed every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23).
In the New Testament, God’s tenderheartedness is revealed through the life and ministry of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Savior’s compassion moved Him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and forgive repentant sinners (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 20:34; Mark 8:2; Luke 15:20). Our tenderhearted Shepherd sacrificed His life so that we might be saved (John 10:11). Just as the love of Jesus compelled Him to give up His life for us, “so we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16, NLT).
God calls us to follow His example by clothing ourselves “with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12–14, NLT). Because God is tenderhearted toward us, we must show compassion toward others (Luke 6:36). After Paul told the Ephesians to be tenderhearted toward one another, he instructed them to “imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2, NLT).
As believers, God is the source and supply of our comfort and compassion for others (2 Corinthians 1:3–5; see also Philippians 2:1–2). As we let the Holy Spirit guide our lives, He works in us to produce fruits like love, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness that we can show to family, friends, neighbors, and fellow believers (Galatians 5:16, 22–23).
Remember that the concept of tenderheartedness evokes a picture of ample insides that are easily touched and moved to action. A tender heart is sensitive and affected. It feels things profoundly and responds quickly. If we are tenderhearted, we will do more than merely feel compassion when we see someone hurting, vulnerable, and in need of help. Like the Good Samaritan, we will be motivated to act with kindness and mercy (Luke 10:30–37).
Tenderheartedness is love in action. It is patience, kindness, and self-sacrifice (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). It bears one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:1–3), patiently tolerates difficult people (2 Timothy 2:24–25), is considerate (Philippians 4:5), and always ready to do good (Titus 3:1–2). The tenderhearted Christian sees other people’s problems and then works to help resolve them.