The Call for Sympathy
In our daily devotional on April 28, 2006, we discussed the power of empathy. We realized how one who empathizes is able to understand another person's situation, feelings, and even his motives. We realized how one who empathizes is able to identify with or relate to that which another is experiencing. We noted that empathy is a trait needed by the Christian who desires to win souls for Christ. We considered I Corinthians 9:19 and observed how the apostle Paul made himself more approachable and placed himself in a better position where he "might win the more" for Christ. As we closed, we concluded that empathy is a quality that can help one strengthen relationships, and it is a beneficial trait to have when dealing with someone who has made a mistake or is struggling with sin.

Yet empathy is not enough. The Lord desires more from His servants; He wants His children to not only demonstrate empathy but to exhibit genuine sympathy. Defined, sympathy is a relationship or an affinity between people in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other. You see, sympathy is not just understanding or being able to relate to other people; it's actually sharing with them in their feelings, whether their feelings be joy, happiness, or even sorrow. This is where the difference between empathy and sympathy becomes distinct. Empathy is characterized by emotionally detached understanding while sympathy is marked by being personally affected by that which affects another. As with most things with which the Christian struggles, the key is balance, and the challenge is to keep ourselves from becoming so emotional that our emotions rule us (or worse--that we become emotionless and uncaring).

The Lord expects Christians to be sympathetic toward one another. Note I Corinthians 12:26,27 - "And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually." As members one of another--as the body of Christ--when one part of the body hurts, the rest of the body hurts as well; the rest is affected.

However, a Christian's sympathy is by no means to be limited only to other Christians. Consider Romans 12:15: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep."

In this verse and the immediate context, the inspired apostle Paul explained to the Christians in Rome how they should behave as Christians. We know Paul was writing to Christians, but with who are Christians to rejoice and weep? As we examine the surrounding passages, we see that Paul specified how Christians are to deal with "one another" (i.e., other Christians) as well as with "all men" and, in particular, "those who" do certain things.

In verses 10-13, the basic thrust is how the Christian is to treat other Christians. Note the two "one another" references in Romans 12:10. Verse 13 refers to the "saints" (i.e., Christians). Verses 14-18 primarily deal with how Christians are to treat "all men". Note the references to "those who" in verses 14 and 15. These instructions should not be understood to be limited to the scope of how Christians treat other Christians. It is true that verse 16 has a limited scope with the reference to "one another", yet the reference to "the humble" cannot be understood to refer to Christians exclusively. Verses 17 and 18 also have broad, universal scopes. Note the references to "no one" and "all men". These terms do not exclude anyone.

The whole conclusion of the matter is this: empathy is a great quality for the Christian to have, but the Lord expects Christians to also have and demonstrate genuine sympathy for all people. He wants us to genuinely and sincerely share in the joys and sorrows of those in our lives. Granted, displaying true sympathy is difficult, and self-centeredness has hardened many sympathetic hearts.

Empathy and sympathy are opposite sides of the same coin; each keeps the other in check. There are many lost in this old world of sin, and, while empathy will help us understand and relate to the lost, genuine sympathy will demonstrate to those precious souls the love of God through the love of His children. Humans desire sympathy and God expects us to give it. A person's capacity for sympathy is often a good litmus test that provides insight to the condition of his or her heart. If our heart rarely goes out to others, can we truly say that our heart belongs to the Lord? Think about it. Few people will care how much we know until they know how much we care.