It is relatively easy to be sympathetic towards someone. Sympathy involves simply understanding someone’s current situation and having compassion on him or her. Empathizing with someone is far more difficult. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is going through because you have gone through it yourself. To put it another way, sympathy extends a card, whereas, empathy extends a hand. Don’t get me wrong, they are both important in life. But ask yourself this question: are you more prone to listen to someone who has never been in your situation or a close friend who has?
I think Christians do a pretty good job of being sympathetic when people are hurting. We visit people in the hospital, bring meals to the shut-ins, and provide blankets to the homeless. But, non-Christians do these things too. The thing that sets us apart from the world is not how we sympathize with people. What sets us apart is how we use the painful experiences from our past to minister to people experiencing them currently. Empathy means we cry with the person, not simply for them. It is a subtle difference, but I believe it is important one.
The Scripture says that the Church is the body of Christ. When one part hurts, we all hurt (1 Corinthians 12:26). When one person mourns, we all mourn (Romans 12:5). We are connected to each other in such a way that the spiritual health of my brother affects my spiritual health. We have been called to more than pity for others. We’ve been called to love one another from a sincere heart—a heart that feels. I think a lot of Christians, especially guys, are afraid to feel anything, citing verse like Jeremiah 17:9. But, have we forgotten that this verse is in reference to the unregenerate heart? If we have been born again then God has removed our hearts of stone and replaced them with hearts of flesh. Are they perfect? No, not at all. But, one day they will be. It is important we understand that growing in Christ-like maturity doesn’t mean we become more and more unfeeling. Rather, it actually means we feel more and more, but as Jesus would (1 Peter 2:21). And no one feels more love for the Church and for the lost than Jesus.
Do you know what Jesus’ incarnation tells us about God? It tells us that He is a God of empathy. He doesn’t just know about the human experience, He has lived it Himself. Hebrews 4:15 says:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Jesus has been through it all. He has been tempted. He has suffered trails. He has lost loved ones. He even experienced death. And He did it all for us. Jesus is sympathetic and emphatic towards humanity as He is both our high priest and perfect sacrifice. A priest knows that the sacrifice is painful for the animal, but he doesn’t feel the cut of the knife. Jesus understood the wrath of God that we deserved and took our place instead. There is no greater display of empathy than this that Jesus would take the judgement for our sins upon Himself. If this is the way in which God loves us, how should we be loving others? How does our empathy towards people point them to the empathy of God?