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

About Bill Sweeney

In 1996, Bill was diagnosed with ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) and the doctors told him he had 3-5 years to live. He is now completely paralyzed and unable to speak, but by God’s grace, he’s still alive and through his blog shares a message of hope in Christ - Unshakable Hope!

Posted on July 12, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 118 Comments.

  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.
    Elouise

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

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  3. 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.

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  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 😀

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  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.

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    • 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.

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

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  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

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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        • 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.

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  8. 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.

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    • 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!

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  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:)

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  10. Such a great story!

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

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  11. Redneck Garage

    Great thoughts of the subject of empathy.

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

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  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…

    JC

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    • 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.

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  13. You’re an inspiration and an encouragement to many. I nominated you for Most Influential award.
    http://adelineohvelarde.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/most-influential-blogger-award/

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  14. Loved it. Jesus is the absolute example of empathy…

    “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.”

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    • Thank you! I love that verse, but thought it might confuse some readers because the post is about having empathy for those going through trials and the verse is about not giving into temptation. I figured those who have been through difficult trials would connect the two; when trials weaken us, like Jesus in the garden praying or in the wilderness… temptations are strongest – doubt, fear, anger etc are temptations too.

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  15. I managed to finish 24th grade, and am therefore qualified to be called a professional, but I find most professionals do their work without even that much sympathy, mostly just efficiency. Empathy is key to really helping others. The Word of God says no one goes through trials that are unique, so if I ask God to help me relate, to see myself as the chief of sinners, forgiven; as also weak and wounded. I’m not the good Samaritan, I’m the guy in the ditch and Jesus pulled me out! Thanks for clarifying and spreading how wise and precise the mind of God is.

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  16. I don’t want to burden you but you have received the received the Sunshine Blogger Award
    http://themotherofnine9.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/award-sharing-time-contd/

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  17. Thank you so much for this wonderful explanation of the differences between sympathy and empathy! It is a hard concept to explain to another–Ive always felt you have to “feel” the difference. You did a superb job if putting it to words. Hope all is well with your friend.

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    • Thank you, Elaine. I think you are right about “feeling” the difference (between sympathy and empathy). I find that many things we know and believe are things that are difficult to explain.

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  18. This was very insightful! I have been praying lately for God to give me more empathy toward others. I think empathy may be key to true repentance. To really feel how those we’ve hurt felt about something. Great post!

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    • Thank you for your insight, Nicole. You wrote: “I think empathy may be key to true repentance.” That is a powerful thought; a revelation for me – I know you’re right! When I read that, I immediately thought about the parable in Matthew 18:21- about the man who was forgiven a large debt, but then refused to forgive someone that owed him a few bucks. He didn’t have the genuine heart change that comes with genuine repentance and therefore did not have empathy for the man. Forgiveness is an act of empathy!

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  19. A very great post again… Thanks for all these powerful life changing instructions you bring. We just bury my wife’s father and have been on the receiving end of the power of compassion from all of our friends and family. Compassion is indeed empathy in action. Take care!

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  20. Just discovered your blog. Very powerful testimonies you’re giving. I have a 21-yr-old friend who recently was diagnosed with ALS and given 4-6 months to live because of its aggression. Then more tests revealed instead it was Guillain-Barre syndrome and all rejoiced. But now he’s not responding to treatment for that either.

    I say all that to say I can have sympathy for him, but you can have empathy. Empathy scares many of us because it means we join in the suffering, not just pity the one with the suffering. But yes, that’s what we’re called to do–thanks for putting meat on the bones of what this looks like, whether we like it or not.

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    • Thank you for your comments, Lisa. I am so glad your friend doesn’t have ALS; I hope that he begins responding to the treatments.
      I like the honesty of what you said – “Empathy scares many of us because it means we join in the suffering…”
      That is so true! Empathy, even committing to express empathy through praying for someone, is a big commitment. Before my trial, I would casually tell people I’d be praying for them; it’s a very common Christian reply to those that express a need. But I no longer say that unless I sincerity mean to enter into a commitment to pray for them. I don’t want my “I’ll be praying for you” to essentially become a lie. As you said, empathy is scary!

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  21. Wonderful, wonderful post. I’m lifting Ann up in my prayers as well, and I hope we all learn how far this type of true empathy and compassion for each other can take us in our walk as we strive to live like Christ!

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  22. Another excellent post Bill, thank you. You write about the differences between empathy and sympathy so well. ‘Compassion is empathy in action, sympathy is merely a feeling’ – perfectly expressed and shows the vast differences between the two. Have a blessed day 🙂

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  23. I wish I was able to respond sooner to this great post, Bill. With my two kids home from school for the summer, I haven’t been able to get on the computer that much! I really enjoyed reading what God has taught you about empathy. Thank you for reminding us that we need to strive to be like Christ who displayed genuine empathy for others. The woman, Ann, you mentioned sounds like she is doing that. I love how she is serving God no matter what circumstance she faces. May it motivate all of us to do the same!

    “Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did” (I John 2:6). “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (I Peter 2:21).

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    • Hi Danielle; it’s good to hear from you. I am glad you’re getting to spend time with your kids; that’s much more important than keeping up with blogs. Kids grow-up so fast – our youngest will graduate from college in two weeks and our oldest is married and will have our first grandchild in November. Every parent wishes they would have spent more time with their kids – that’s why grandparents spoil their grand-kids, they’re trying to make up for it:-)
      I think trying to be a good parent is demonstrating empathy (being Christ-like) towards your kids. Good job!

      “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me…” (Matthew 18:4-5)

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  24. I loved reading your posts! You inspire me! Thanks

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  25. I loved reading your posts! You inspire me! Thanks

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  26. Empathy is more costly, to be sure. To allow the Lord to give us a taste of the other person’s pain takes courage…it also greatly changes the way we pray for them. Thanks for this great article.

    \o/

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  27. Pain is only the seed of compassion; empathy waters it and makes it fruitful.

    Through all the losses of my life, most recently the death of my mom, I find it divinely supernatural that it is through pain that my heart grows more and more desperate to help ease the pain of others.

    I love your posts, Bill. You’re always so gracious in how you share truth.

    Love to you.

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  28. “Compassion is empathy in action; sympathy is merely a feeling.” Now there’s a quote that deserves to be published in an anthology or displayed on a plaque! Compassion is a great word to guide all our interactions with others. Thank you, Bill, for your inspiration and challenge.

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  29. Reblogged this on Hopeful and commented:
    This is a powerful essay on Christian empathy by Bill at “Unshakable Hope”- — a favorite bloger.

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  30. Very nice post. It reminds of of the verse the Lord calls us to – empathy is not loving at arms length, but close-up and intimate.

    “Since God chose you to be the holy people whom He loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12 NLT

    Upon arising each day, clothed in His Word and Truth as God’s holy people to extend His initmate love. Love freely given as poured out wine – just as did for us.

    Bless you, I truly enjoy your blog!

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  31. I appreciate your definitions for empathy and sympathy. As you pointed out, the account of the Good Samaritan is a clear display of the difference between the two. Whenever I read the account it is a wonderful reminder of the compassion fo Christ (the Good Samaritan) towards the lost (the wounded man). His empathy and compassion resulted in Him going to the lost and treating their sinful condition; while both organized religion (priest) and the law (the Levite) did nothing to bring healing to him.

    Lord bless you. Great posting.

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  32. Bill, this is an incredible insight on the differences between sympathy and empathy. Thanks so much for sharing what God is teaching you. Blessings.

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  33. Thank you…I needed to hear this…

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  34. Well written my friend !!
    Re-blogged this… Hope you don’t mind !! 🙂

    Blessings in Christ, bruce

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  35. This was such a beautiful, challenging, and inspiring post. I find I am more empathetic towards those going through things I’ve once experienced. Much too often, I am so consumed w/ self, I don’t even take the time to pause to notice how others might be feeling. I would love to be more actively empathetic, takingthe time to show how much I care. Thank you for the reminder! And thank you even more for reminding me of Christ’s amazing grace!

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    • Thank you, Jennifer. I think we are all more empathetic toward those going through trials we’ve been through or are still going through. I am certainly like that and maybe God intends it that way.
      I was thinking about the Good Samaritan; Jesus doesn’t give us any background on him, but I was thinking that maybe he had empathy on the “half dead” man because he had been beaten and robbed in his travels. Those Roman roads were dangerous to travel alone.

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  36. This is amazing. My heart has been touched by such truths. God bless you for sharing.

    ~Terra

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  37. Way back when I was a nursing student, one of the first things we were taught was how to be empathetic to our patients and their loved ones. If we were able to put ourselves in their shoes, we would be aware of how to be more compassionate towards them. Thanks, as always, Bill.

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    • That’s good, Terry. You cannot fake empathy; those of us that have gone through medical challenges know the doctors and nurses that are empathetic; we call it bed-side manor. I know you are one of the empathetic one’s.

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  38. Thanks Bill! A good word and reminder for us all!

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  39. Another powerful post, clear and to the point. I am reading a book right now that talks about this very thing. I Thought it was Just Me(But it isn’t) by Brene Brown.
    There is so much growth that can take place in these health trials. I often think it was to help me be less self sufficient, and more dependent on God, and those around me, not an easy thing to do, as you know. Thanks for the good word.

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  40. pretty convicting. thanks!

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  41. Reblogged this on Sarah's Voice and commented:
    What an Inspiration!

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  42. I talk to people all the time about the differences between the two, but never put it as well as you in this post. Thanks for opening up God’s Word and pointing out great examples of empathy.

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  43. This is a beautiful post, Bill. Thank you for such depth and illustration.
    As you mentioned, it is the action of self that separates empathy from sympathy. (sending a check to a charity isn’t the same type of action as sitting with your sick friend)
    Your post reminds me of the person I aspire to be.
    Thank you again for this…

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    • Thank you, Denise. I agree with you; money for charity is good and necessary and I am SO thankful for the times that people showed us empathy by blessing us financially. But even the poor can and often do show empathy through simple, but needed acts like helping a neighbor in need.

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  44. Very thoughtful post, yes I think empathy and grace could be synonyms for each other.

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  45. Steve Ponchot

    Pain and loss are the greatest teachers. Only after we truly suffer can we begin to comprehend Grace. If I need anything, it is Grace.

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  46. This is absolutely beautiful! Thank you for expressing it so well & teaching us all. I appreciate each post you share. May God continue to be with you.
    Blessings,
    Joanne

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  47. Bill, you totally nailed it! Thank you for your valuable insights that beautifully clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy as well as the challenge that goes with it. This is an area I am convicted about so I was grateful to be reminded of the connection between empathy and His abounding grace. Praising Him always!

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    • Thank you, Kathie. Mary and I have felt that same kind of conviction to act on empathy; mere sympathy doesn’t bring that kind of conviction. As you so rightly said, empathy can be a challenge, but it feels so rewarding when we act on it. I suspect that you know what that feels like.

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  48. Great verse for your friend Ann. Please will you pray with me and believe the same for my mum, who’s in the middle of chemo at the moment?

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  49. Thank you, Bill for your words today. I recently found out that a wonderful and young friend of mine has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and last night, I attended a prayer time for him. He said that “it is difficult to put in words the experience of going through personal crisis, surrounded by the Body of Christ.” This “feeling with” is a unique experience.

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  50. I wonder if you have ever considered writing a book about your life experience, your faith, etc. If not, you should.

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  51. This is so good. I cant absolutely relate. I find healing in praying for others.

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