Sympathy – feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
There’s a distinct difference between them. I think Brene Brown described it best by saying, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
Let’s say you have a friend that’s going through a really hard time in her life, and she’s finally taking some time to explain everything that’s going on and how deeply hurt and frustrated she is. A sympathetic response would sound like, “I feel so sorry for you. But it could be worse.” An empathetic response would sound like, “I am sorry you’re going through this. This must be tough. I’m here for you. How can I help?”
You see, empathy is a choice: a decision to get down to the level of our hurting friend and weep with them. Sympathy, however, keeps us at a distance from our friend’s problems, their pain, and their struggles. Which response do you think is more Christ-focused? Paul explained in detail what our responses should be:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” -Galatians 6:1-3
The next time you have the opportunity to choose between empathy or sympathy, ask God to help guide your actions and words to align with His love and mercy. Choose empathy.
Can you recall a time when you received a sympathetic response from someone when you were going through a tough season? How did it make you feel?
Author: Sara Fullerton