There is a great difference between empathy and sympathy, even though they are often used interchangeably. Sympathy is limited to an emotional response. You feel compassion for someone because of their suffering. We may send a “sympathy card” to express sorrow for whatever they are going through. Empathy goes beyond simple emotions. Empathy means you enter into that person’s suffering and share the experience with them. We may feel compelled to do this because we have experienced the same kind of struggle before. This might mean we can offer hope and insight into their struggle. Certainly empathy is a deeper and more intimate response. But we may carry this distinction between sympathy and empathy too far.
In the midst of their pain, people often say you cannot relate to their struggles unless you’ve been through it yourself. This may be partly true. If I have never lost a child, struggled with addiction, or faced serious illness I may not be able to fully appreciate that situation. My advice may seem shallow or even uncaring. For example, “Why don’t you just stop doing whatever your addiction is?” If we have not been through what the person we seek to help is suffering, we should choose our words and advice very carefully.
Maybe the best advice to give is none at all. Consider the three friends of Job who sat in silence with him for seven days before he spoke a word. They were offering love and sympathy that whole time. When they opened their mouths and began trying to “help” Job see the source of his troubles, they became “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) and only added to his suffering. For this reason, some are hesitant to offer any sympathy because they don’t know what to say and fear they will say the wrong thing. But empathy may not always be the best route after all.
Instead of rebuffing someone who hasn’t “been there” perhaps you would be wise to listen. They may not be simply preaching at you and rendering judgment on your failures. Maybe I am in a position to help you specifically BECAUSE I’ve been able to avoid falling into those traps and mistakes. Why would you want advice from someone who failed? Don’t you think I’ve been tempted to steal, lie, cheat, pursue pleasure, and take the easy way out too? Maybe my life has been better because I was able to avoid those things, therefore, maybe I can help you avoid it too. It is not necessary to swim in the filth in order to encourage someone else to get out of the hogpen. I don’t have to dive in to know that I don’t want to be in there. There is a place for both sympathy and empathy. The challenge is to know which and when.
“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15 NKJV). Jesus was tempted in every way but didn't fail. That is what makes Him perfectly suited to help us. He can sympathize because He loves us and has compassion for us (Mark 6:34). He can also empathize because He endured every kind of temptation we face. The difference is that Jesus conquered every one of those challenges where we often fail. This does not disqualify Him from helping us, but rather makes Him the perfect advisor. He can offer words of wisdom and comfort unlike anyone else. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
In His service,
Rob Lester <9)))><