Unshakable Hope

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Learning To Empathize

As I begin typing this post, Ann, one of Mary’s oldest and closest friends, is having surgery to remove cancer from her body. Later she’ll have to go through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In faith we are praying and believing that, like my friend Dabney in my last post, this friend will fully recover—she “will not die, but live, And tell of the works of the LORD.” (Psalm 118:17)

Ann is a great example of a Christian that demonstrates true empathy. She doesn’t merely feel sympathy for those going through difficult times; she walks through the difficult time with them. One of the many ways that she demonstrates empathy is by cooking and delivering meals to fellow church members, friends and family that are ill or otherwise going through difficult times.

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

To feel for the person going through a trial is sympathy. To feel with a person going through a trial is empathy. Sympathy is merely a feeling that may or may not result in productive action. And, as in the case of giving money to an addict for instance, sympathy can result in actions that are counter-productive.

I think most people are born with a capacity to feel sympathy, but I believe that empathy, in the Christian sense of the word, is something we learn through the humbling effects that come through life’s many challenges and difficult trials.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person.”
Walt Whitman

Before being diagnosed with ALS almost seventeen years ago, I was one of those that thought empathy and sympathy were basically synonymous, just like the thesaurus tells us they are. But, through the humbling of this trial and through people showing us genuine Christ-like empathy, I now know the difference between sympathy and empathy. (It’s been a tough grammar lesson).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

empathy pic

As I said, from a Christian viewpoint, I no longer believe that empathy and sympathy are synonymous. But I found another word that I believe should be a synonym for empathy—Grace. When I began thinking about writing a post on empathy, I was trying to think of Biblical examples (of empathy) that I could use. Before even opening my Bible program to start searching, example after example began flooding my mind; so many examples that I had to quickly open a Word document to type them out before I forgot.

I guess I never saw it this way before, but the New Testament is a book about empathy; Jesus came to demonstrate God’s empathy for man and to teach us how to empathize with one another. His mission of empathy can be summed-up by two of the most well-known verses; John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”), which demonstrates God’s love and empathy for man, and the so-called “Golden Rule” (“…treat people the same way you want them to treat you…” Matthew 7:12), which tells us to empathize with one another.

But Jesus knew that the best way to teach, especially to children and to a simpleton like me, is through telling stories; no story teaches empathy better than the Parable of The Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.”

Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands? And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37)

Obviously we don’t know what was in the minds of the two men who saw this “half dead” man and purposely avoided him. I have to assume that even these self-righteous religious leaders felt some sympathy for the poor guy, but only the Samaritan felt and acted on empathy.

Compassion is empathy in action; sympathy is merely a feeling.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
Theodore Roosevelt


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118 thoughts on “Learning To Empathize

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  1. Bill, This is spot on! I’m so glad I found it. I especially appreciate the way you connect your own experience with your discovery of the true meaning of empathy, and also with the action and meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan.
    Praying for you these days.

  2. Susie Yi on said:

    This is from a while back, but I learned a lot from this post. Thanks for writing this!

  3. Anonymous on said:

    Hi, I stumbled upon your blog when researching a paper for bible school. My paper is on helping in a counselling setting and how empathy plays a vital role.
    I found this post encouraging. All the best.

  4. I don’t know if you are aware that I have to be humbled at times and feel the need to reread your posts because of a nudge from God or the Spirit or whatever (I believe it’s both). I have a friend who will have his foot removed tomorrow due to infection. It upsets me. He has been sick for so long. I thought he wouldn’t live this long but I saw God work in him and bring him back–heal him until something else came along. His wife is devastated. I have prayed that he would be healed again but sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want. You know that 😉 – I do, too. I can’t question God as to why or how come. It still saddens me to know this will happen and there is nothing I can do. You were right about the empathy–that these trials we go through cause us to see things differently…feel things differently 🙂 . I hope this week finds you doing as well as possible and so fully blessed. Take care! – Amy 😀

  5. Great post on the difference between empathy and sympathy. I’ve always found it easiest to afford my husband empathy because I see on a day to day basis the terrible anguish and pain he’s in. However, I now want to work on developing more empathy actions for friends and other individuals. For me, empathy seems to require a great deal more thought and effort on my part and that’s what Christian actions are all about.

    • i agree with you, Sheri, unlike sympathy, empathy is intentional; as you said, it requires a great deal more thought and effort – for all of us. I think this is true even for spouses that are caregivers like you and my wife.

  6. Good points you’ve brought out here regarding sympathy and empathy.

  7. Wow, I was just talking about the difference between sympathy and empathy last week with my husband. This week the topic came up in my biblestudy. I spoke about how we should empathize with others by displaying God’s love and grace. That when we act we should act in faith not frustration or fear. God has been speaking to me about the importance of spending time with Him in word and prayer so that I can see others through His eyes. Sometimes you read something and it just rings so true in your heart, that you just know God is speaking! Thx feeling encouraged

    • Thank you for your comments, Cheryl. The difference between empathy and sympathy is hard to define; I think it’s a revelation – something you just know and do even if you cannot explain it. I am glad you get it.

      • Anonymous on said:

        I like to think of empathy as the stabilizin post of a seesaw. At one end is sympathy, the othr judgement. In the natural I do sympathy n judgement really well. Empathy is challengin, it requires humility n faith. I thought ur example of the good samaritan was gr8. He could hav judged like the first 2 did. Or he could hav sat on the side of the road feelin soz for him n watchd the man die, but he didnt. He cared for the injured man and carried him to someone who could heal him.

      • I didn’t consider the judgment aspect of sympathy, but you’re right – if someone looks upon a person in need of help, but passes by, he or she is making a judgment about that person that they’re not worth helping.

  8. Anonymous on said:

    What a beautiful post and responses. I have read them all and didn’t see a word that I thought might have popped up so I’m going to lay it out for thought.

    The face of empathy is servant-hood.

    John 13:15-17
    ” I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
    Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.
    If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”

    Philippians 2:5-7
    “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
    Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
    But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant. . .”

    To truly serve another is to come alongside where they are and out of a heart of empathy do what needs to be done for them – what they really need – not what makes me feel like I did my good deed for the day.

    God bless you Bill.
    You’re doing a beautiful job with what God has given you.

    • Thank you very much for your encouragement, for the verses and for the following comment – “To truly serve another is to come alongside where they are and out of a heart of empathy do what needs to be done for them – what they really need – not what makes me feel like I did my good deed for the day.”
      I like that!

  9. I for one believe that empathy translates to verb and doing practical assistance on top of prayers and a shoulder to cry on. However we want to show help and support is appreciated. A lil action helps too:)

  10. Such a great story!

    Thanks for giving a fresh perspective on The Good Samaritan. Never heard it put like this!

  11. Redneck Garage on said:

    Great thoughts of the subject of empathy.

    I love your summary of empathy: “Compassion is empathy in action”

  12. Hi Bill,

    These are important differences to note. I love that you ended it with sympathy being just a feeling, but empathy is the one that promotes ACTION.

    The importance of empathy in a Christian is that it gives us the ability to intercede on behalf of others. We shouldn’t have to experience the situation ourselves to be able to truly intercede for others.

    I am preparing for a sermon on Mark 8:22-26, and we see people bring a blind man to Jesus….. Just like the men who cut the whole in the roof and let down the crippled man so that Jesus could heal him. They didn’t have to be blind or crippled (in truth the blind can’t help the blind) to help. That’s what compassion is…the desire to want to ease someone else’s suffering with any resource that you have (I hope that makes sense 🙂

    Your words and life are inspiring…


    • Thank you for for your comments, JC. What you said is so true – We shouldn’t have to experience the situation ourselves to be able to truly intercede for other.”
      Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, we usually do have to go through some difficult times to be able to tap into what genuine empathy is.

  13. You’re an inspiration and an encouragement to many. I nominated you for Most Influential award.

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