Apathy, Sympathy or Empathy?

I’m currently reading a book about kindness (a fruit of the Spirit) which I’ll review tomorrow.  Today, however, I want to talk about one interesting idea that stuck me — there is a difference between sympathy and empathy.  Here’s how the author describes it:

  • Apathy:  I don’t care if others get wet if I stay dry
  • Sympathy:  Here’s an umbrella, hope it helps
  • Empathy:  Standing in the rain, together

Often, as Christians, we show sympathy — which certainly isn’t bad, and sometimes it’s all we are able to do–but we never try to go any deeper.  However, the Bible tells us to:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15

Sounds like empathy, doesn’t it?  Deep empathy requires listening to others so that we can understand what it is they really need.  We normally empathize more easily with people who are like us — people who have led similar lives or hold similar beliefs.  However, we can increase our empathy when we practice.  Here are some ideas:

  • Ask someone to share a favorite tradition from their culture or typical day in the country they are from.
  • Have a cross-cultural potluck.  Talk about what makes each dish a favorite.
  • Read a book about a different culture or with a main character whose race or country is different than your own.
  • Ask someone from a different faith tradition to write down five important ideas about their belief system and you do the same.  Sit down and talk about them.
  • Have a conversation with someone who is much older or much younger than you are.  Listen thoughtfully to their opinions.

Jesus was never apathetic.  He showed sympathy and empathy for many different people — the Samaritan woman, a tax collector, the rich young ruler.  He listened to them;  he spent time with them, and He understood their needs.  Of course, He was God and we are not;  but we are called to imitate Him and be guided by the Spirit.  As Paul said:

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.[“1 Corinthians 2:12

Listen to others; listen to the Spirit;  practice empathy.