Empathy vs. Sympathy

The question has come up, rather often in my own mind, how can God relate to our suffering? Before I answer that question I would like to lay out some things I believe about God, and I hope you do as well, for they come from the Scriptures. I believe God is good, there is no evil in Him (1 John 1.5). God is loving and faithful (Deuteronomy 7.9). God is a righteous judge (Psalm 7.11). God is all powerful (Psalm 62.11). And God cares about everything, literally (1 Chronicles 29.11). So, taking all of these together I can assume God does not like suffering, but empirically, and experientially, I know that suffering and evil exist. The question is, then, how does God relate to me in my suffering? The most obvious and straight forward answer would be that God relates to you in your suffering in relation to how you relate to God in His suffering.

I would like to define two terms and use them appropriately, I hope. The first is empathy. The definition of empathy is this: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. To break that down, it means you put yourself, imaginatively in another person’s shoes, to try to understand how they feel. As the definition says, it is an intellectual endeavor to have pity on another. For example. If you happened to be shot in the leg by a .38 caliber pistol, I could say, “I could only imagine the pain that you are suffering right now.” Which is true. I have never been shot in the leg by anything. I can use my imagination and the creative capacities based upon the experiences I have had to formulate an idea or a likeness to what you are experiencing, but I could not say, “I feel your pain.”

Sympathy on the other hand is rather different. The definition of sympathy is this: harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another. This harmony in feeling is based on similar experiences. You do not have to try to put yourself in someone’s shoes, because you have worn those shoes before. For example, in high school I was nominated as a likely candidate that could help trouble children at the elementary school down the street. Of course there are all kinds of troubled youth, but the coordinators of the program matched me with a specific group of children, those from broken homes. Having divorced parents, and living through the separation and subsequent remarriage of both my parents to different spouses lent a level of sympathy toward the children going through the same thing. I did not have to sit with those kids and say, “I can only imagine the heart-ache you feel.” I could say, “I know how bad you hurt right now,” and I could mean it. I had sympathy with them, not empathy for them.

Get the difference?

So, what about God and our suffering? I would like you to read these passages of Scripture before we discuss this any further.

2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief; (Isaiah 53.2-10)

and

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2.21-25)

and

46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46)

Let me point out a bit of the language used here about the suffering of Jesus: He had no form of majesty (that means he was ugly), despised, rejected, full of sorrows, acquainted with grief, smitten by God (have you felt like ever that?), afflicted, pierced, crushed, wounded, oppressed, judged, cut off from the land of the living (how horrifying), stricken, suffered, reviled, forsaken. I hope you see that in this small sample of Scripture Jesus suffered in multiple ways, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Remember that time he was so nervous he was sweating blood? (Luke 22.44).

It should be clear by now, but God relates to your suffering through sympathy, not empathy. Jesus Christ can come along side you and say, “I know your pain my child. Come with me now, for I have overcome suffering.” This is the God I know. This is the God I trust and love. Not some objective judge floating in the netherworld (whatever that means) but a living God, one who has bled, cried, suffered, loved and died. The God of the Bible is a gracious God, close to our hearts because He knows what it is like to be a created being and suffer the effects of sin. Jesus, having never sinned, suffered the wages of sin, namely death. God knows the pain and extent of sin, but it has been conquered.

I am not saying that if you believe in Jesus Christ all your troubles will go away, far from it actually. Scriptures promise troubles of a different kind if you follow Jesus. What I am saying is that you are not suffering alone. You are suffering with the one who has suffered the most. Read again Matthew 27.46 above….kn, now think about this. Why would Jesus say that? Some people assume Jesus merely feels forsaken, but in reality is not. I contend a different viewpoint. I promote that the one who must die to satisfy the wrath of God must experience the full wrath of God, which can only mean death and separation. Jesus Christ was separated from his heavenly Father upon the cross as he bore my sin, your sin. Do not ever assume God does not know how you feel; He has, through Christ, experienced all the suffering the sin can offer. Christ knows through sympathy, not empathy.

Relate to God through His suffering and you will see the comfort of God throughout your suffering.

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One comment

  1. […] This month’s free audiobook from christianaudio.com is by Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts. I have not read this book so I will supply what I have heard and read about it. Out of 73 reviews on Amazon, this book maintains a 5 star rating. Christian Book Distributors writes this about the content of the book, “Does trusting God come easily to you—until adversity strikes? Amid troubles and tribulation, do you sometimes doubt whether he really cares? Exploring three essential truths about God—his complete sovereignty, his infinite wisdom, and his perfect love—Bridges shows you how to rely on God implicitly in every circumstance. 240 pages, softcover from NavPress.” I find this an intriguing little description because of the qualification of “every.” When I scooted over to NavPress’s website I found out that this book came out of Jerry Bridges’ own personal struggle in a time of severe anguish, which means this author is not writing a book about things he can only think about, but rather he is writing because he has been there (see my previous post on the difference between sympathy and empathy!). […]

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