Empathy vs. Sympathy

I have spent many hours in conversation with women, couples, and children who are struggling. It’s something I truly love to do, and I have learned that not everyone is wired to listen to the hurt that pervades every heart. But as believers, and thus ambassadors of Christ, we are all called to walk in biblical community with fellow believers. Whether we love to listen or just want to get to the bottom line, our loving Father commands that we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). What does it mean to obey this command?

Bearing another’s burden does not mean taking it completely off her shoulders. In fact, there is no way to shoulder someone else’s load entirely. However, many people try. They hate to see a loved one in pain, so they try to ‘fix’ the problem in one way or another. I have walked with women who were completely worn out because they spent so much time and energy trying to make others feel better. We are not called to take away another person’s burden by putting it on ourselves.

Neither does bearing another’s burden mean listening to the short version of the story and then spitting out Bible verses and suggestions to pray and serve more. The Bible is not a how-to manual. Those who follow it tediously often still suffer greatly. The Bible can act as a healing balm for the bleeding wounds of the heart, but it is not a band-aid to be used for covering and then forgetting about a deep injury to the soul.

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Picture a friend who has been incarcerated. You go to visit her in prison. You sit across from her with the glass between you and speak through a telephone. You can see her lips moving and can hear her voice, but there is still a wall of glass between you. This is a picture of sympathy. You may want to hear and see and be near, but you cannot deny the distance between you created by your situations. She is in prison – you are not. Therefore, you cannot truly understand her position (and you don’t really want to, either). So you try to speak kindly and offer words of encouragement, all the while knowing that you will leave in a few moments and enter the fresh air of freedom, and she will remain stuck behind bars.

Empathy, on the other hand, portrays a much different picture. Empathy goes into the prison cell with the inmate. It sits side by side on the hardened cot and smells the odors of urine and sweat. It hears the sounds of other prisoners yelling and cursing. It can touch, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There is no protective glass.

How do I go from sympathy to empathy? Must I have an experience similar to another person in order to feel what she feels? May it never be! I certainly hope I don’t have to experience every kind of pain for myself in order to empathize with my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. The first step to growing in empathy is a humble heart. If I know my place, my utter desperation for a Savior who heals, I can enter into the prison cell with another. No matter what kind of hardships I have endured, I know that my hardships represent a life in absolute need of Christ. With this understanding, I can see her imprisonment as similar to mine – we all need Jesus’ healing power for our suffering. I can step behind the bars and sit in the cell with someone else, because I have sat in  my own cell plenty of times, crying out for freedom.

The second thing that creates empathy in my heart is an understanding of the sovereignty of God. I am not called to fix anyone’s problems. I am not God, and therefore am not responsible for making things better for anyone. He alone is sovereign to heal and cleanse and grow. Therefore, I can enter the prison cell without fear, knowing that we will walk the road of healing together. I will offer myself, not just my words. This is what bearing one another’s burdens looks like. And this is the heart of empathy.

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