In the English classes I teach, I often take time during a lesson to highlight commonly confused words like lay and lie or affect and effect. A particularly tricky difference for kids to grasp is between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling for someone, whereas empathy is feeling with someone. Empathy requires that one understand from experience what another person is feeling.
For example, there are days when I just need to have a good cry to get all my “feels” out. My husband has sympathy for me because he loves me and wants me to feel happy. However, he can’t have empathy because he has exactly zero personal experience with the whole “just need to cry” phenomenon. (Once when I used this example in class one boy pronounced soberly, “I don’t think I’ll get married…”)
The difference between sympathy and empathy seems negligible—just the difference of a preposition. In fact, Hebrews 4:15 in one Bible translation describes Jesus as a great high priest who can sympathize with us. Another translation uses the word empathize in the same place. It almost seems as if the two words are interchangeable. However, the difference between having a sympathetic Savior (one who feels for us) versus an empathetic Savior (one who feels with us) is actually huge.
The New Living Translation of Hebrews 4:15 captures the essential difference: “This high priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” Jesus is able to empathize because he knows experientially every trial we might go through.
Author Brené Brown argues that empathy extends further. In a TED talk on the subject, Brown asks listeners to imagine being stuck in a deep dark pit with no way out. A sympathetic person would look down in the pit, flash a heartfelt expression of pity, and say, “Wow. I’m so sorry you’re in that pit. Good luck.” In contrast, an empathetic person sees you in the pit and then comes down into the pit with you so you don’t have to be alone.
Empathy is therefore greater than sympathy because it moves beyond feeling to action. It is a choice to share in the pain of another, and that choice always comes at a cost.
Christ is the epitome of true empathy. Apart from Christ, we are not only in a pit of sin, but also powerless to get out on our own. The sin and darkness into which we are born separates us from God and all that would heal and fulfill us. Jesus doesn’t look down from heaven on our brokenness and say, “Bummer, guys. Hope you figure it out!” Instead, he took on human form and experienced every type of frailty, test, and sorrow that any human would ever encounter.
He came into the pit with us.
Have you been lonely? So has Jesus. Have you been betrayed or abandoned? Jesus understands that feeling. Have you been tempted relentlessly? He has too. There is no suffering, no pain, no sorrow that Jesus can’t comfort you in, because he knows exactly how each one feels. We have an empathetic Savior.
Christ’s empathy comforts us, but it also transcends human empathy. Although he joins us in our pit, he doesn’t leave us there. The empathy of Christ creates a bridge connecting fallen man to heavenly Father. Jesus understands what we feel because he chose to be fully man. However, he is also fully God. Christ is therefore able to empathize with sinful man yet remain sinless and holy. By way of the Cross, Christ descended beyond our pit of sin into the depth hell itself so that those who follow him would never know it. Christ’s empathy is why the writer of Hebrews can proclaim, “Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:16)
When I consider all that I have gained because of the supernatural empathy of Christ, I am devastated with gratitude. How do I respond to this undeserved privilege? For starters, I must never forget to come boldly before the throne of my gracious God—and to do so regularly and with deep gratitude.
Then, I must follow Christ, recognizing that doing so will very likely lead me to people who are in dark pits of sin or suffering. And like Christ did for me, I must be willing to enter their suffering with them.
Finally, I must remember that only Jesus can save a soul. Therefore, my role as a Christ follower is to build relational bridges to Jesus.