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Scripture Advocates Sympathy, Not Empathy

It’s mind-boggling how Scripture addresses everything we could imagine, and then some. My most recent “Aha Moment” was when I came to appreciate why Scripture references sympathy, as opposed to the worldly approach – empathy. Though the words are considered to be synonyms, the differences are significant. Before making the distinction and mentioning implications to caring ministry, let’s look at their definitions.

SYMPATHY

  • “The feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.: a sympathetic feeling” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
  • “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune” (Oxford Dictionary).

EMPATHY

  • “The feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
  • “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Dictionary).

A particularly noteworthy distinction is that empathy originates from the head and focuses on the problem, whereas sympathy comes from the heart and focuses on people. In the Bible, four prominent references to sympathy are in Job 2:11, 42:11, Philippians 2:1, and 1 Peter 3:8. The Hebrew word “nud” translates to console, grieve, mourn, and wander. The Greek words “oiktirmos” and “sumpathés” refer to compassion and to being mutually commiserative.

A particularly noteworthy distinction is that empathy originates from the head and focuses on the problem, whereas sympathy comes from the heart and focuses on people. In the Bible, four prominent references to sympathy are in Job 2:11, 42:11, Philippians 2:1, and 1 Peter 3:8. The Hebrew word “nud” translates to console, grieve, mourn, and wander. The Greek words “oiktirmos” and “sumpathés” refer to compassion and to being mutually commiserative.

The natural human instinct to seek understanding, give advice, and try to “fix it” is inconsistent with biblical teachings (see, for example, Proverbs 3:5, Isaiah 43:11, Luke 9:62, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, and Philippians 3:13-14, 4:7). A biblical example that demonstrates the difference between sympathy and empathy is the story of Job. When Job’s three friends learned of his plight, they came “to show him sympathy and comfort him” (v2:11). However, after a while, they shifted from expressing sympathy to empathy. At that point, we discover that the friends did more to hurt Job than to help him. Their failed attempts to understand and make it better reflected assumptions, accusations, and allegations, none of which were correct. In verse 16:2 (NIV), Job even referred to his friends as “miserable comforters!”

Recently, God graciously presented me with an experiential learning opportunity and painted a picture that made this distinction apparent. Upon arriving home from school last week, one of my daughters came to me in tears. She told me that her best friend would soon be moving to Texas. While that may seem like no big deal, this was the third time in four years that she had learned that a best friend would be moving away. She was crushed and confused. At that moment, it clear that there was nothing to understand, figure out, or fix. What she desperately needed was to be consoled and comforted. I gave her a big hug, told her how sorry I was, and we prayed.

As for the picture painted in my mind, it was that of a relief effort following a storm. I was struck by the similarities between providing relief and extending care. As I prayed and reflected, many things came to light including:

  • Those who respond are often affiliated with Christian organizations.
  • To be helpful, we first have to show up.
  • There’s no way to prepare for what we might encounter upon arrival as every situation is different.
  • It not about understanding the situation, it’s about loving the people.
  • Many people have a need to share their story, and the best thing we can do is listen.
  • People don’t expect us to fix it and we know that we can't.
  • People find great comfort in the simple things like a hug, words of encouragement, and prayer.
  • Often the greatest relief comes from satisfying people’s hunger and thirst.
  • Healing and rebuilding take time, and the process can’t be circumvented.

As the body of Christ, let's resolve to show up and be sympathetic. Also, let's make sure to offer spiritual encouragement and prayer in an effort to nourish souls, offer hope, and make a lasting difference.

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