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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for empathy . . . and sympathy?

Lynne Baab • Thursday February 1 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for empathy . . . and sympathy?

When I first learned about the difference between empathy and sympathy, here’s what I absorbed from explanations of both words: Empathy is feeling sad (or happy, angry, or some other emotion) when you tell me about something that made you feel that emotion. Sympathy is seeing your sadness and acknowledging it, perhaps by saying something like, “That’s too bad.” With empathy, we feel some degree of the other person’s emotions. With sympathy, we can see the other person’s emotions and acknowledge them, without necessarily feeling them ourselves.

The tone of voice makes a big difference with the words, “That’s too bad.” A kind tone — what I might call a sympathetic tone — makes clear that I’ve noticed you’re what you’re feeling. A perfunctory or dismissive tone might come across as paternalistic, superior, or uninterested. Perhaps that’s how sympathy has gotten a bad rap. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about sympathy in contrast to empathy. “Brene Brown on Empathy,” a YouTube video that’s been watched 20 million times, has great material on empathy and is also entirely negative about sympathy.

Any Christian who wants to think about empathy and sympathy must also consider compassion, a word used frequently in the Bible to describe the Triune God and also Jesus.

Here are some notes about the three words:

compassion– used 63 times in the Bible
etymology: Latin, with suffering

sympathy – used 3 times in the Bible
etymology: Greek, with feeling

empathy– not used in Bible
etymology: Greek, in feeling

The etymology of the three words shows their proximity in meaning. Based on their original meanings in Greek or Latin, we might say “suffering with” for compassion and “feeling with” for sympathy. The fact that “em” in “empathy” comes from the Greek for “in” speaks to me about the presence of emotions in me when I see them in others. These three words are similar in that they all relate to something going on emotionally in others that I am perceiving. I am not ignoring other’s emotions. I am not dismissing them. I am paying attention.

Compassion’s etymology helps us see that compassion usually relates to times when another person is suffering. Empathy has an additional aspect to it. I can empathize with someone who is really happy. To experience joy with them means I am entering into what they’re feeling. I am also suspending judgments like, “It will never last” or “It’s not fair that I didn’t get to experience that.”

In Brene Brown’s excellent material on empathy in her popular video, she says that empathy creates a community of care and has three characteristics:

  • Taking the other person’s perspective seriously
  • Taking the other person’s emotions seriously
  • Refraining from judging

In contrast, her version of sympathy involves trying to paint a silver lining on the problem. For someone with marital problems, her cartoon character representing sympathy says, “At least you have a spouse.” For someone who had a miscarriage, “At least you know you can get pregnant.” I see no connection between those comments and the notion of “feeling with” someone, the root meaning of sympathy. I see those kind of comments as a failure of compassion, sympathy, and empathy. So I recommend her video for insight about empathy but not sympathy.

Last week, when I wrote about the role of mirror neurons in empathy, I listed several scriptures that mention compassion and one that encourages us to be sympathetic: Psalm 145:9, Matthew 9:36, Luke 7:13, Colossians 3:12, and 1 Peter 3:8. Here’s Philippians 2:1-2, which links compassion and sympathy, showing the Apostle Paul’s high regard for both:

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Perhaps you are convinced about the inferiority, even negativity, of sympathy. If so, I encourage you to pray that God would grow compassion and empathy in your heart and mind. If you see a lot of overlap between the three terms, as I do, you could pray that God would nurture in you the kinds of responses that help people feel loved in the midst of whatever emotions they are experiencing. I love the broadness of empathy. It enables us to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and feel angry, sad, frustrated, scared, or a variety of other painful emotions with friends, family members, and acquaintances who are experiencing those emotions. Empathy helps us “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” as Paul recommends.

Harmonious and compassionate God, you desire that we draw close to the people in our lives, showing them care and compassion when they are hurting and rejoicing with them when they are happy. Help us grow into your desires for us. Open our hearts to allow the emotions and needs of others to touch us.

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Next week: some of the research on empathy and how to pray in response. Illustration by Dave Baab: hikers (or trampers depending on where you live) on the way to Mount Aspiring, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

Previous posts on compassion:

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