Sympathy and Empathy

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Within the church there are often different ways to approach a visitor who’s life style may be different then “our life styles”.

  1. Judge the person, often even before we’ve met them.
  2. Sympathy – wanting to fix their situation.
  3. Empathy – seeking to understand where they’re coming from.

I’ve already covered “Judge Not” in another post on this blog.


Empathy Versus Sympathy

To the left is a chart on the differences between Sympathy and Empathy.  But this chart is not going to change anyone’s inherent attitudes towards “outsiders”.

I use the term outsider because I think the church sometimes acts like an exclusive club.  Like the Pharisees would condemn Jesus when He would visit and share a meal with “sinners.”  (I would hope that Jesus would sit down with me also!)  

Since this Blog Site is aimed at Christian men, I have an easy way to describe sympathy versus empathy.  When a man listens to his wife he hears an issue and has a fix for it.  But the wife is still in the process of airing out all the parameters of a situation or a relational problem (maybe us).  Don’t we as men sometimes do the same before we reach a conclusion?  Women often do not have a specific goal in mind.  They want to know their husband knows how they think.  Does the fact we often don’t know tell us anything?  A sympathetic person is about fixing the other person’s issue whereas the empathetic person will listen long enough to understand where the person is coming from.  And will encourage the other person – not fix it for them.

Exclusion  is an attitude I’ve not gotten a hold of.  When I was at college in campus ministries the object was always to include more people (as we also did in the political club I was a part of).

I was reminded of a phrase recently “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted”.  When we joined Jesus Christ we enlisted in a war effort.  The war is spiritual and the human aspect is in winning souls or Jesus.  In this case we are to be about the process of transforming our enemies, which we once were.

We cannot enter this war without the proper equipment.

Sword and Listening

And the most important piece of equipment in this battle is the sword (the Word of God, the Bible).  This is the only offensive weapon mentioned.  But by it’s knowledge we can learn good Christian attitudes.  And becoming adept at using our own blemished story to disarm would be converted to faith in Jesus.

When we read(/study) the Bible we should look for applications; not for others but for ourselves.  Do we have a personal record of transformation (called sanctification) that we can point to as part of Christ’s redeeming grace?  Do we remember that when we were Baptized we went under the water with the old man and were raised as a new man in Christ?  Our own story will not help a lost soul if we have nothing to say but just point to our church fellowship.  We need to remember it is bad church experiences that have driven people away from church and a Christian faith.

Our task is just to listen to their story, their hurts, and to their hearts.  This is the point of having empathy which is more than sympathy.  This process of listening and becoming a confidant can last a year, or sometimes more.

One of the missions my church has had is VBS.  One year we had an evening VBS which included an adult Bible study for the parents.  We had a sign-up for the families to register the children.  Our leaders of the Bible Study said no one came.  I asked them if they knew a single parent’s name – and they did not.  peoplecwill not respond to empty gestures.

Samaritan Woman

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Theodore Roosevelt.  

The question is not do we care, but how we care.  There’s three ways I believe that people care.

  1. To be seen (the giver receives the most)
  2. To be sympathetic (food, clothing, and free advice)
  3. To be empathetic (a listening ear, time, and encouragement)

The best example of mine for empathy is Jesus’ example of approaching a person of a different culture and a person who was in a sinful lifestyle.

(John 4:5-8 WEB) 5 Then he cometh to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground, that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6 Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore being wearied with [his] journey, sat thus on the well: [and] it was about the sixth hour. 7 There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith to her, Give me to drink. 8 (For his disciples had gone to the city to buy provisions.)

Jesus didn’t just stumble across the Samaritan woman.  He purposely talked to her, when no Jew would have. Because the Samaritans were despised by the Jews and Jesus violated custom by talking directly to a woman. And the fact that it was mid-day was a sign she was a gross sinner and had no association with other women in her city.  Empathy must be intentional.

(John 4:9-12 WEB) Then saith the woman of Samaria to him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, who am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. 10 Jesus answered and said to her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked him, and he would have given thee living water. 11 The woman saith to him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? 12 Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his children, and his cattle?

The woman confirms the Jews hostility towards the Samaritan.  The living water is what we receive when Jesus comes into our lives.  And Jesus is greater than all the patriarchs.  And there is no well deep enough to hold all the living water God has for all mankind.

(John 4:13-15 WEB) 13 Jesus answered and said to her, Whoever drinketh of this water, shall thirst again: 14 But whoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him, shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. 15 The woman saith to him, Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, neither come hither to draw.

There are two different perceptions of water in this dialogue.  But the obvious difference is the temporal versus the eternal. The worldly versus the Holy.  And how much time do we spend in either paradigm?  I find it’s easy to drift into worldly concerns instead of where I should be – and be safe.

(John 4:16-19 WEB) 16 Jesus saith to her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. 17 The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said to her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: 18 For thou hast had five husbands, and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband: in that thou hast spoken truth. 19 The woman saith to him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

This section gives a modern definition of what churches who believe in prophecy believe is prophecy.  I have been in Bible study groups and seen people reveal something about another person that they don’t know.  I did the same in a friend’s church who asked me to pray for another man I had never met.  After we each prayed for the other, my friend said that each one of us prayed for exactly what each one of us needed.  When Jesus prayed for this woman and revealed her past she was not offended because He was listening and not condemning her out of hand.

Salvation Comes

(John 4:20-23 WEB) 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. 21 Jesus saith to her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.

Not sure what this passage means.  Jesus is listening and He’s describing worship in the New Covenant.  But He seems to be belittling her faith.  Although it is a fact that starting with Jeroboam the religion of the Israelites/Samaritans had always been corrupted. 

(John 4:24-27 WEB) 24 God [is] a Spirit: and they that worship him, must worship [him] in spirit and in truth25 The woman saith to him, I know that Messiah cometh, who is called Christ; when he is come, he will tell us all things. 26 Jesus saith to her, I that speak to thee am [he]. 27 And upon this came his disciples, and marveled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?

Notice Jesus here as in other places in scripture, identifies Himself with God and Spirit giving us a true picture of the Trinity.  He speaks as an authority of the things of God.  Note the woman doesn’t talk about a conquering King but of one who “knows all things”.  Isn’t this the sweetest part of the whole Gospel which is ours because Jesus stayed true to His mission as the perfect sacrifice?  And after this great revelation comes the “disciples/dampers/church people” saying what would be expected of seeing some low cast person.

(John 4:28-30 WEB) 28 The woman then left her waterpot, and went into the city, and saith to the men, 29 Come, see a man who hath told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? 30 Then they went out of the city, and came to him.

I find it remarkable that the men in the would have even listened to her.  Maybe her countenance changed.  Could it be that with just a single conversation, that left her with consequences of her own making, had turned her world upside down?  Have we gotten so used to our Church routines that we’ve forgotten to look for the miraculous in lost souls being saved.  The men in the city saw something and heard something out of the ordinary and sought out Jesus. 

(John 4:31-38 WEB) Notice that men’s hearts are often in their stomach.

(John 4:39-42 WEB) 39 And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, who testified, He told me all that ever I did. 40 So when the Samaritans had come to him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days. 41 And many more believed, because of his own word; 42 And said to the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard [him] ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.

Notice the theology of the woman.  Only her singular experience wrapped in sincerity.  But we have to admit that the singular experience was really powerful.  What do non-believers ask for as evidence of God – miracles, tongues, visions, forgetting their sins, etc.?  But what if they find a person that really listens and it feels safe to tell them of the vices that hold them down?  And don’t be fooled, someone very successful could be twisted up inside hiding domestic violence, addictions, greed, betrayal of business associates, leading a double life, etc. all while looking good on the outside. 

Real Help

Here is a link to an organization who looks for people who have become socially invisible to most of us.  For reasons that are not their own or reasons that are their own they are the drop-outs of life who need someone to come alongside.

Jesus Demonstrates Empathy

(Hebrews 4:14-15 WEB) 14 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest, that hath passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast [our] profession. 15 For we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but who was in all points tempted as [we are], [yet] without sin.

We often think of Jesus being above us.  But in His bodily form He had all of the temptations we experience as men.  We also think that we have direct access to God the Father.  But in the mode of Melchizedek Jesus is our intermediary.  This shows His empathy in that He came to us and understood all of us.  We should come to Him in humble submission knowing that He’s there for us to bring us through every trial, including the trials we created for ourselves. 

How Empathy Works

These last three passages give us simple pictures of how empathy works.  That is being humble, looking out for the interests of others, and simply coming alongside people that just need a supportive person who listens and prays with them.

(Romans 12:15 WEB) Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

(1 Corinthians 9:22 WEB) To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak: I have become all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some.

(Philippians 2:2-4 WEB) 2 Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, [being] of one accord, of one mind. 3 [Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

Categories: Compassion, empathy, Salvation

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2 replies »

  1. I found this wonderful post by Lynne M. Baab, Ph.D.
    “In her article, “Compassion and Restorative Action,” Cori Esperanza argues that empathetic understanding is one of the components of compassion. She quotes a definition of compassion by Dr. Frank Rogers: “Being moved at one’s gut level depths by the pain or bliss of another and responding in ways that intend to ease their suffering or promote their flourishing.”[1] Compassion, then, involves something we experience inside of ourselves – which includes empathy – as well as the actions we take in response to what we experience.”

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