When I talk to leaders, I often have a conversation with them about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling because you have been there yourself. Sympathy is acknowledging what someone else is feeling even though you haven’t experienced it yourself. They are slightly different, however Empathy can be much stronger because you can have a deeper emotional connection. Just because you haven’t experienced it yourself though, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t express sympathy. In both cases, you’re working to share the emotional load of another person.
Galatians 6:2-3 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important” (NLT). This commandment is given to all of us to help one another in whatever burden someone else is carrying. I’ve seen many believers back away from a situation because they couldn’t empathize with that person. The load of their situation was crushing them, but no one came to their aid. This where sympathy comes in. It can express itself by simply sitting with that person. Your physical presence tells them they’re not alone thereby taking some of their burden off of them.
Each of us have our own problems, but we are better and stronger when we carry them together. From the beginning God said it was not good for us to be alone. He built us for connection and to help each other. If you look around today, you will see someone in your path who is struggling to carry a heavy burden. Whether you can empathize or sympathize with them, it’s important to let them know they’re seen and they’re not alone. If you think back to a time when you were burdened down, you will remember how desperate you were for some acknowledgment that would give you hope and strength. Today, you have that opportunity to be that for someone else. Don’t miss that opportunity, and in doing so, you will fulfill the law of Christ in loving your neighbor.
Years ago when my mom passed away, there was an endless line of sympathetic people saying they were sorry for my loss. I was grateful for their words and actions, but inside I was wanting something more. I didn’t need an apology from friends and acquaintances. What I realized I needed was empathy from someone who understood what it was like to lose a parent at a young age. When I found people like that, it was a completely different feeling and conversation. It wasn’t an apology. It was a, “I understand the hurt and the pain. You’re going to get through this. Here’s what got me through and what it’s going to be like in the near future,” conversation. It was like a breath of fresh air to me because they understood.
There are times when it’s hard to pray because of the things we’re going through. We wonder how could God understand? Should we really be feeling this way? Prayer was never meant to be a set of rote phrases. It was created so we could have a conversation with God, but sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones who have ever gone through something or have been the only one who has experienced something. Those feelings are lies from the enemy and are meant to isolate you from others and to keep you from praying to God. When I hear those lies, I have to remind myself that while my experience may be unique, I’m not the only one who has go e through something like it, nor am I the only one who has felt the feelings I feel.
To open up communication with God, I remind myself that Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because He Himself [in His humanity] has suffered in being tempted, He is able to help and provide immediate assistance to those who are being tempted and exposed to suffering” (AMP). Not only does Jesus understand, He can provide immediate assistance to us in those moments where we desperately need someone who understands us. He doesn’t think we’re crazy for the feelings we have or the things that tempt us. He knows they’re part of the human experience because He lived a human life and was tempted and felt loss the way we do. God is not sympathetic to what you go through. He’s empathetic which is greater. That should be like a breath of fresh air to each of us.