Empathy vs Sympathy & Compassion: What’s the Difference?

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? 
Any comfort from His love? 
Any fellowship together in the Spirit? 
Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 
Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. 
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had,” 
(Phil 2:1-5)

Matthew, Mark & Luke all include the act of Simon of Cyrene in their account of Jesus’ crucifixion. This was the man called out of the crowd by the Romans to carry the Messiah’s cross when His body could no longer withstand it’s weight; “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear His cross,” (Matthew 27:32).

This is a brief sentence, with huge implications and impact.

Scourged and beaten almost to the point of death, having lost pints and pints of blood, skin and muscles severely lacerated from the Roman’s instruments of torture, and the failing of multiple internal organs… Jesus was seriously weakened and required assistance to carry the device that would ultimately end His life up a steep hill. Simon must have been watching in horror, perhaps sympathizing to some degree, although he may have presumed the man to be a common criminal. From a crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands of locals and those who had traveled, like himself, to Jerusalem for Passover he was chosen and found himself pressed into action. In the NASB, Mark 15:21 states, “They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country.” 

This story is included to show us one more great example of true compassion. But, I want to distinguish sympathy, empathy & compassion, because I understand them to be different, and feel they are often confused.

Sympathy, as it is denoted and practically applied to life means, “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Pity can often be condescending or belittling and could cause a person to elevate themselves above the one with the “greater” misfortune. Sympathy certainly shows thoughtfulness and means that one is feeling sorry for another’s hurt, but there is emotional distance in this. I have also seen sympathy given for so long that it transforms itself, slowly, into apathy (a lack of concern, interest, or care).  Apathy can poison our hearts. With sympathy, there is an acknowledgment another person’s emotional hardships and perhaps a verbal provision of comfort and assurance, but the sympathizer remains detached. Empathy goes beyond sympathy; it is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. This is a clear ability to understand (verses simply acknowledging) what others are feeling. Empathy says, “What you’re going through is something I can closely relate to, because I have been through something similar; we have a shared experience.” Empathy shows a deeper emotional intimacy with the struggles, pain, or suffering of another. But herein lies the issue… does true empathy necessitate an experience which would cause the empathizer to sincerely understand and emotionally share the current experience of the one suffering? If so, then we are “off the hook” when we see people hurting around us who have experiences very different from our own? Sure, we can feel sorry for them from a distance, but aren’t we called to something greater than that? Aren’t we to take on the attitude of Christ and do something?

So what is compassion?

The Latin, compati means “to suffer with.”  Compassion is sympathy in action. We can act to relieve the suffering of another regardless of whether we have been through similar circumstances. This word of action increases our responsibility and requires humility. Simon must have felt embarrassed, now the focus of attention in this public spectacle; he must have felt reluctant to carry this heavy, bloody torture device for a “criminal;” he must have felt greatly inconvenienced by this dramatic change in his plans.

But we are called to love people and to show genuine compassion.

It will not always be convenient or comfortable, and be may not be immediately willing and eager. But, compassion sometimes means putting other’s needs before your own agenda.

As you become more aware of and encounter hurting people in your world, take on the challenge of demonstrating authentic compassion…… you will be transformed. You will act skillfully and intentionally to help alleviate the pain and suffering of others. You will come to know the profound contentment and life satisfaction that comes by being available to help bear the weight of other’s distress. You will be more like Jesus. You will encourage others to move into action, and they will begin to change the world around them.

Be moved to pray for them and their family regularly, make a meal, be available to LISTEN, check in regularly through their trial, visit this person at the hospital, LISTEN, go for a walk with them, share a meal, help them with things around their house, ask how you can serve them… and LISTEN.  I have always loved this verse from Hosea 11:8- “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” Let’s choose to allow our hearts to be stirred and our compassion to be kindled and fanned into flame.