The Importance of Sympathy and Empathy in Christian Living
As Christians, we know that God is love (1 John 4:8). His love for human beings was demonstrated above all when He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8).
We, His people, not only worship the God who is love, but we are actually called to become imitators of Him (Ephesians 5:1), and there is nothing we should aim to imitate more than His love. After all, love is greater even than faith or hope (1 Corinthians 13:13).
One way in which we should imitate God’s love is by sympathizing with those who are suffering. When someone is hurting, it surely hurts God that they are hurting. And we too should be people who suffer when we see others suffer. That is what sympathy is all about.
Sympathy motivates us to comfort
Sympathy is not only good in itself, but it also motivates us to comfort those who suffer. Comforting people in distress is another key part of what imitating God’s love involves.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 the apostle Paul writes:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (English Standard Version)
Here Paul tells us that God comforts us in our suffering so that we are able to comfort those who are suffering.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the only reason God comforts us is so that we can comfort others. He comforts us for our own sake too. But there is a part of this comfort that is in a sense transferable. Having been comforted by God, we are then more able to comfort others in their sufferings.
Those who have suffered deeply themselves are usually better at sympathizing with those who are suffering and are more able to comfort them. Furthermore, for someone who is suffering, the simple fact of knowing that others have also suffered is often a source of comfort.
I was recently receiving some counselling from a church leader, and I told him about some grievous sufferings that I have experienced. He made it clear that he had suffered badly himself too, and I found that to be a real comfort. It is always a help to know that other Christians have also gone through difficult experiences and that we are not alone.
Importantly, when someone is comforting a person in their suffering, it is often not necessary for the comforter to have experienced the same kind of suffering as the person being comforted. Just knowing that the comforter has experienced the suffering of whatever kind helps the sufferer to realize that others have suffered and come through the other side.
Too proud to want sympathy
From time to time you will hear a person who is suffering say something like, “I don’t want sympathy! I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me!”
There is a positive side to this attitude insofar as the sufferer is rejecting self-pity. Sometimes a person can want people to feel sorry for them in such a way that they allow self-pity to feed off that sympathy. Self-pity is wrong, and it is always right to reject it.
But there is also a big negative side to this attitude. To actually not want people to sympathize with us at all when we are suffering shows a stubborn pride. None of us can manage on our own, and we all need the help of others. So this is really quite an arrogant attitude to have.
If I am suffering, I definitely want people to sympathize with me! I need to be careful not to let self-pity feed off that sympathy, but I want them to sympathize.
Why sympathy is good
There are several reasons why sympathy is good.
First, there is the obvious fact that if someone sympathizes with a person in their suffering, it is likely that they will help them, at least through comforting them. So sympathy is good for the sufferer.
Second, sympathy is pleasing and glorifying to God.
And finally, doing things that please God can only be good for the person doing them. So it is beneficial for the sympathizer to show sympathy.
If someone suffers, then, and another person sympathizes, it is good for all the parties involved, the sufferer, the sympathizer and God Himself.
Not only is sympathy such an important quality in the Christian life, but so too is empathy. Whereas sympathy is about feeling distressed because someone else is suffering, empathy in a sense gets more personal. It involves the ability to know how someone feels, to put ourselves in a person’s shoes so as to “get” what they are experiencing. It also involves being able to know how a person would feel if a certain situation arose or if certain words were spoken etc.
God, of course, is the Empathizer par excellence. He knows exactly how each of us feels all the time, and He also knows exactly how we would feel if we were confronted by any situation. So pursuing empathy is another way in which we can strive to be imitators of God.
Growing in empathy
Empathy is something that can grow through practice. From time to time, we can use our imaginations to try to understand what it would be like to suffer in a certain way.
For example, have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like to need a wheelchair to move around? Or what it would be like to have a long-term illness? Or to experience the death of a child, or to fail all your exams, or not to be able to find a job, or, as is true for many Christians around the world, to know that there are people in your neighbourhood who are plotting to assault or even kill you?
You may have experienced some of the things on the above list, but you are unlikely to have experienced all of them. As an exercise in empathy, now and again we can try to imagine what it would be like to experience things like these.
Empathy helps us to avoid insensitivity
The willingness and ability to empathize can mean that problems are often avoided.
For example, time and again people make insensitive comments that hurt someone because they have simply not realized that their words would have that effect. Those who are good at empathizing make this kind of mistake less often. They are more able to tune into how someone would feel and so avoid saying something hurtful.
Empathy helps us to avoid needless arguments
People who are good at empathizing also tend to get into needless arguments with people less often, because they are more able to see things from the other person’s point of view.
Of course, sometimes when two people disagree, one is right and the other is wrong, and it is as simple as that. At other times, however, things are not so clear-cut. The better we are at empathizing, the more easily we will be able to see the strengths of the other person’s perspective and the weaknesses of our own.
Empathy helps us to avoid unfair blame
Failing to empathize can also often lead to unfair blame being levelled at a person. There are times when someone tries to do something with good motivations but they end up causing a problem instead. Then what frequently happens is that people just look at the negative results and get angry with that person, although that is really very unfair.
I can think of an example of this from my own life, where I had an opportunity to get upset but I chose to try to empathize instead.
A few years ago I went on a retreat with a Christian healing organization to try to get healing for a certain problem. To cut a long story short, I came away from the retreat with greater problems, and I am fairly sure that this was due to lack of expertise among the healers. It took me about a year to recover to the place where I was before I went on the retreat.
I could have just looked at the outcome of this retreat and got angry with the healers. To be fair, however, I think they were fine Christian people who tried hard to help me. They got something wrong that made me worse, but their motivation was good. It would, therefore, be self-centred and wrong of me to get upset with them. Instead, if I try to empathize, it gives me a much better perspective on what happened.
Empathy helps us to avoid getting offended unnecessarily
Failure to empathize can also lead to people becoming offended without good reason.
One common example of this is when one person doesn’t trust another, and then the person who is not trusted gets annoyed and offended.
There are, however, many times when it is perfectly understandable for someone not to trust a person.
For instance, if I meet someone for the first time and don’t know anything about that person, why should I trust them? There are many untrustworthy people in the world, so why should I trust someone I have just met without knowing them? And similarly, if someone meets me for the first time and doesn’t know anything about me, it is perfectly reasonable if they don’t trust me.
There are many people, however, who get offended in situations like this one. They are not trusted and they find that unacceptable. And the reason they feel this way is because they are not trying to empathize with the other person. They are not trying to look at things from the other person’s perspective.
People are different
Having empathy is sometimes made more difficult by the fact that different people can feel very differently about the same type of situation.
For example, some who are going through a hard time really want their friends to keep asking them how they are. But for other people going through the same sort of difficulty, being repeatedly asked how they are is the last thing they want.
Similarly, some people can get very offended by something that wouldn’t offend others at all.
In situations like these, there is no one-size-fits-all. Sometimes we can only empathize after learning something about a person.
In conclusion, then, as Christians, we must not underestimate the value of sympathizing and empathizing with people. These virtues are pure gold, and the more we have them the more good we will be able to do. Pursuing sympathy and empathy is an important part of what it means to imitate God in His love.
About the Author: Max Alpin is a writer and a Christian for over 30 years. He has a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in the south of Scotland