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Perhaps you have the time to write out your definition of empathy. If you do, please do it now. You may be riding with someone as you’re listening to this podcast; will you share your definition of empathy? Do the same for sympathy. Now, with your view clear in your mind, let’s start with the meanings of those words.
Sympathy is the older word. We see it showing up in the English language circa 1570. The critical idea of sympathy connects these three words linearly: with, feeling, and suffering. It is two or more people (together) feeling (understanding) the suffering (difficulty) that is happening to an individual.
An illustration of sympathy is a doctor applying medicine to a wound. The doctor is “with” the person, and he understands (feeling) the problem, and by implication, he goes beyond understanding to bring restorative care. Coming alongside (with) and caring (feeling) but not delivering restorative care is incomplete sympathy.
Empathy is a modern word; it entered the English vocabulary circa 1900 and is a by-product of Freudian, Jungian, and other like-minded secularists who desired to enlighten the culture about the problems and solutions for humanity. The big idea with empathy is also a linear collection of three words. They are, in, feeling, and suffering.
The soul care provider is not with the person who is suffering but enters into their pain in an infusion way. Infuse or assimilate are helpful words to understand empathy. If you flip empathy around and look at it from the victim’s perspective, they “project themselves and their pain” into the helper. If the counselor or discipler does not “become” like the hurting person, as in a mirror image of the hurting person, they are not genuinely empathetic.
It’s not about helping the way a sympathetic doctor would bring restorative care to a sufferer. Typically, the expectant recipient of empathy has “understanding them” as the number one thing they want from a soul care provider. The best illustrations for empathy have something to do with jumping in with the hurting to know them, according to how the sufferer wants you to understand them. The victim determines the kind of care they receive.
You will hear them say things like, “You don’t understand” and “I need someone who gets me.” Too often, if you attempt to bring restorative care, especially if it’s challenging advice, they will react harshly by talking about how you are “not getting” them. Empathy is the wrong need for the hurting, and the majority of folks who want it don’t understand what they are asking. Most counselors do not understand this problem. Go back to your definitions before you started reading the article. How do you need to change your definitions?
Illustration – Suppose you and your child were on a boat. Your ten-year-old boy falls into the water. He cannot swim. You’re standing on the deck, and you must make a split-second decision. Here are your two choices: you jump in the water to save your son, which is empathy. He’s flailing, panicking, and yelling for help. Or you stand above him and throw your struggling son a life preserver and yell at him to grab it and hold on, and you pull him to safety, which is sympathy.
In a 2015 article from Gizmodo, Esther Inglis-Arkell said,
If you witness someone drowning, most emergency responders agree that what you need to do is look around for something buoyant before you even get in the water, get in a boat, or try to throw the drowning person something from shore. Swimming to someone who’s drowning and trying to take hold of them is dangerous even for professionals.
There’s a reason why lifeguards carry those orange plastic buoys, and it’s not their need to accessorize. Throwing a drowning person something to keep them afloat, so they don’t hang on you, is essential.
The empathic person would jump “in” the sea with the boy, and the chances of both of them dying are high. The sympathetic person has more wisdom, courage, love for the individual, and soul care expertise. They would insightfully see the problem for what it is, and creatively figure out a way of helping them without either one dying.
The obvious question is, why do so many Christians talk about empathy as being better than sympathy? There are several answers to that question; the most apparent is that they don’t know any better. But why do they not know anything different? The answer is the slow dumbing down of the Christian mind to where we think Freudian and don’t know it.
The truth is that Freud and his friends have had a more significant influence on the Christian worldview than anyone else. But it’s more than Freud and his helpers. Sigmund was only a small cog in the relativistic worldview machine. In this case, I’m speaking specifically of ethical relativism.
Ethical relativism means morality is beholden to the expected and accepted norms of the current culture. What the predominant society believes is how we all must think. If you do not believe and practice as the culture does, there will be punitive reactions. Our culture does not believe in the Bible as the absolute authority in our lives. They believe any truth is authoritative, except for the Bible, of course.
One way relativism leaked into discipleship and counseling methodologies until it turned into a destructive torrent is the belief that you can’t tell me things I don’t want to hear, even if what you’re saying is common sense and correct. (I’m not speaking of unkind, harsh, ill-advised, or unbiblical counseling. I have made many cases for lousy counseling and counselors.)
The cultural “me-too movement” is a perfect example of this relativistic problem. You’ve heard their proponents say, “Believe all women.” Every believer with common sense knows how problematic that stance is. Black Lives Matter has also made a similar mistake. But if you speak against the over-correction, you don’t understand them or the problem, and you’re not empathetic to their issues.
Being sympathetic has nothing to do with dismissing a legitimate problem. Women have experienced horrific abuses. So have men and children. Black people have received some of the harshest treatment in this country, as well as from many other nations. The same goes for Jews and other ethnic groups. Nobody in their right mind would argue against these realities.
Sympathy sees the problem from a macro (wide angle) and micro view (pinpoint), not just the narrow scope of the victim’s perspective. Sympathy sees all the elements of the issue. To suggest the sympathetic person who refuses to drown with you or permit you to “manipulate them” into your deadly waters has no compassion is short-sighted, minimally, and fatal to the victim in its worst case.
Hurting people who do not understand the differences and dangers between empathy and sympathy will always escalate the problems and their relationships. The drowning victim will scream louder and flail more viciously if you don’t jump in with them. It’s one thing to understand them, but if you attempt to put medicine on their wounds, they will react in such a way that healing won’t come, and they will exacerbate their pain.
The weak soul-care provider will succumb to their crippling insecurities and overreact by overcorrecting the problem. The victim now has all the power as to how restoration will happen, and it rarely works. And if the victim does not get what they want the way they want it, they will “slam the door on their way out” while maintaining their victimhood because the sympathetic helper did not understand them. They weren’t empathetic.
These harshly reacting victims rarely find help as they bind themselves in self-imposed incarceration because they refuse authentic redemptive soul care. Their comeback will either be anecdotal evidence that justifies why they believe as they do and why all their helpers were wrong. This unwitting tactic is more complicated because strands of what they say are usually accurate, at least “true enough” to keep them imprisoned by their victimhood.
Part of the problem as to why we are at this point is the assault on all hierarchies. Sympathy has a “you are over me” feel to it, as it should. Empathy has a “you are in the quicksand with me” feel to it, as it should. Our culture does not believe in hierarchies anymore. If you do not operate from an “equality for all” egalitarian framework, you’re old-fashioned, unwelcome, and not qualified to help anyone. The culture has been dismantling hierarchical structures for many generations, and the counseling office is merely one of those contexts.
A sympathetic person would never succumb to such an inferior worldview. The sympathizer must stand outside, even “above” the sufferer, which is the only way they can competently and comprehensively help any victim. But when you mix legitimate abuses that came from a hierarchal situation into a relativistic culture, there will be visceral and hateful reactions toward anyone standing in the rightful place of authority.
One bad “authority experience” ruins all authoritarian structures, no matter how biblical the other ones are. Many Christians are “socialists” regarding their expectations of counseling and discipleship because they don’t believe in authoritative constructs. They are sanctification socialists who are beholden to “you never saying anything that offends me.”
What they don’t understand is how they erected a false argument that will never lead to restoration. They will use Jesus as their example because “He understands me.” He took on their suffering. He entered into their pain. Or did He? They do have a proof text.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Jesus is a sympathizing Savior, not an empathizing one. He can’t be like you because you’re a fallen person. He is without sin. Jesus can’t think like you because you have impure motives. He hasn’t done much of anything like you, i.e., sin, marriage, children, in-laws, smoked weed, been to jail, or experienced an abusive father. It’s an extensive list. You don’t want Jesus to be like you.
Lord Jesus will stand above you, reaching down to you, hoping you will grasp His hand so He can pull you up and out of your miry bog and onto His redemptive rock (Psalm 40:1-2). Turning Jesus into the “rescuer of your dreams” rather than Him saving you from yourself is your gospel, not His.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure (Psalm 40:1-2).
False arguments can create false opposites to support their wrong beliefs about empathy. A false opposite is when you put two things together that aren’t opposites in actuality. For example, the supposed false opposite of a Los Angeles Laker fan versus a Boston Celtic fan is not the opposite. In reality, they have a lot in common, like their love for basketball. An accurate “false opposite” is a lover of basketball compared to someone who disdains basketball.
In the counseling world, the empathetic proponent believes loving and wounding is a false opposite; they should never be in the same room together. The empathizer does not understand the victim-sinner construct where there may be the possibility that the victim should own at least a shred of blame. But you can never say that out loud because if you truly cared (empathy), you would “believe all women,” as an example.
In the medical world, if you were empathetic, you would never do anything that would hurt a person. Most patients would become worse, and even die with that kind of worldview. But if you have a “false opposite” that says empathy is always believing, always kind (according to your understanding), and never challenging, then you have suppressed truth, and you’ll never be free. False opposites always suppress the truth.
We live in an overcorrecting culture. Rather than seeing the abuses (or whatever the issues are), which is typical in a fallen world, and reacting with common sense and wisdom, we oversteer the car to our detriment. We want to put ourselves so far from the scene of the crime that we create another crime that only complicates the pre-existing problem. We may feel better about ourselves because we did not repeat the mistake we’re running from, but the problem we’re creating not only buries what we don’t want to repeat, but it compounds the problems by the overreaction.
It takes a sturdy discipler not to yield to this problem, and there are so few of them. Insecure Christians cannot counsel at this level. They are not “sturdy enough.” They can do soul care on a more moderate level. But they are not qualified to care for others in these more complicated situations because they are too timid, afraid, and insecure, and they typically double down on making sure they don’t offend anyone.
An empathizer will read this and connect what I’m saying with being harsh, unkind, dismissive, combative, and mean-spirited. These people have been baptized in empathy and cannot hear what I’m saying because of their powerful shaping influences that blind them to their empathetic blindness. Rather than having a sober self-awareness that understands how there are abusers in all the ranks of the helping professions, they won’t even consider the need for a competent person to investigate the whole matter thoroughly because they are afraid (Proverbs 25:2).
We see this problem with people’s overreacting responses to the police in the States. There are corrupt police, which no sensible person would deny. But the “empathetic worldview” says police have no right to think, suggest, imply, or investigate any victim of a crime to see if there is clear innocence or partial guilt, no matter how small the matter is.
Suppose you were in an accident, and it was not your fault. But the police talked to the guilty party first. Would you believe in empathy or sympathy in that situation? Would you want the policeperson to “enter into” the pain of the other person and not “stand outside and above” the fray to make an honest assessment by investigating the entire matter?
Do you have the courage to do this kind of investigative work when you care for people, especially in light of the backlash that will most assuredly come your way if you hint, even in the slightest way, that you need to search out the full matter so you can make an accurate assessment of what happened?
(I took my notes for this article from the Amazon Prime series, Man Rampant, Episode One.)
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).