Cross-cultural workers often have tons of sympathy. We see the needs (physical, spiritual, etc.), we answer the call, and we GO. And that’s just great.
Sometimes we stir up sympathy for the poor and the marginalized; we fund raise with pictures aimed to generate pity and money. And that’s not so great. But it is relatively easy.
Sympathy is a powerful start, but it is not the finish. So I don’t want to talk about sympathy. I don’t want to talk about the pros and cons of feeling (or generating) sympathy. I want to talk about something much more potent.
I want to talk about empathy. I want to talk about the power of empathy in a world gone mad.
“Everyone has a story that will break your heart. And, if you’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees.” ~ Brené Brown
“Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person…. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.” ~ Dr. Neel Burton
First, we’ve got to be able to recognize emotions. In fact, the ability to accurately see emotions (ours and others) is a huge part of emotional intelligence. I wrote more about that for the IMB here. Jesus did this splendidly, and it changed peoples’ lives.
Second, we’ve got to be willing to share those emotions, even the not-so-fun kind. This requires a willingness to really walk alongside of, to enter into, to incarnate. We’ve got to be willing to ask the questions “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?” while staying in the present with the human in front of us. When we do that, people will feel seen.
But while sympathy and empathy share a lot of letters, they differ greatly: “Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.”*
We know this is biblical, right? I mean, we know that slapping people with truth is not the Way. We know that just being sorry for people is not the Way. We know that the Word came and dwelt among us, lived and breathed, fought temptation, fought hunger and weariness. He did not just feel sorry for us from on high and give us a handout.
He walked our roads.
I’m not really saying anything new here; I’m just using new words to talk about old things.
Consider the Differences
Sympathy demands action, words, movement, gifts. Now! Empathy is healing, even in the silence. Empathy does not freak out when “nothing can be done.”
Sympathy may make me feel better, helping me to feel like a caring and thoughtful person. Empathy, on the other hand, may leave me feeling worse. Because now I FEEL what the other person is feeling.
Sympathy gives stuff to the person and leaves.
Empathy listens to the person and then gives what is necessary, even if that is just time.
Sympathy requires very little heart.
Empathy requires fully engaged hearts.
Sympathy is quick and Instagrammable.
Empathy is slow and rarely easy to communicate to a third party.
Sympathy is one-size-fits-all. A big box store.
Empathy helps us to hear each person’s story, to feel their story, and to respond specifically, lovingly.
Sympathy often produces platitudes, evidence of disconnection.
Empathy happens in proximity and leads to greater connection.
Which one’s easier for you? Which one’s easier for your church or organization?
Why Empathy is So Hard
“I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’” ~ Dr. Burton
I often hear people talking with great emotion about “the lost” or “the nations” or UPGs. And that’s fine and good, but I’m afraid that sometimes this generates sympathy for the nameless masses, with zero awareness of the need for empathy. The desire to help, even the desire to see people rescued from hell, can block us from doing the hard work that’s necessary to actually empathize. Sympathizing can be dehumanizing.
So we must recognize what’s going on. Remember, sympathy is not inherently bad. But it’s not inherently enough, either. If it gets us out the door, if it motivates us to offer help, and self, then sympathy can lead to the genesis of empathy.
But sympathy that never outgrows itself risks turning us, our organizations, and our churches into heartless benefactors, with very little Christ-likeness left.
And so we must remember.
We must remember that we follow the King of Empathy, the One who Incarnated. Immanuel.
How unique among the gods!
May we remember to imitate our Father, offering our hands and our hearts.
May we remember to walk the dusty roads with our hands out, not just our handouts.
May we remember to listen, to hear, and to see humbly,
As we follow our God, The King of Empathy.