A Word from Bob 

You’re reading Part 9 of a blog mini-series on biblical empathy.

Mini-Series Introduction 

There’s been some controversy in Evangelical Christian circles the past year about “empathy,” with some saying, “empathy is sinful.” For 36 years (since 1985), I’ve equipped God’s people for compassionate, empathetic one-another care. So, biblical empathy has been important to me long before the current controversy. In this blog mini-series, rather than presenting a negative critique of writings that say, “empathy is sinful,” I’m seeking to offer a positive presentation of what the Bible says about empathetic one-another care. Simply stated, I desire to present a brief biblical case for biblical empathy—what it is, why it is vital, and how we can minister Christlike empathy to one another. And, rather than “re-inventing the wheel,” I’m developing this series from the culmination of 36 years of thinking about this topic, especially as summarized in my equipping book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ. 

Common English Definitions of Empathy and Sympathy 

A couple of quick, obvious overview points:

In English, empathy and sympathy are often confused, and with good reason. Both words deal with the relationship a person has to the feelings and experiences of another person. Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.”

Sympathy is the older of the two English terms. It entered English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.”

Since then, sympathy has come to be used in a more specific way. Nowadays, sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune. This sense is often seen in the category of greeting cards labeled “sympathy” that specialize in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need. You feel bad for them, but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes.

Empathy entered English a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology. Psychologists began using empathy as a translation for the German term Einfühlung and the concept that a person could project their own feelings onto a viewed object.

Empathy has now come to be used in a broader way than it was when it was first introduced. The term is now most often used in a dual way:

Empathy and Sympathy in Counseling 

In counseling, sympathy is observation and acceptance of what someone else is going through. Sympathy is the emotional reaction of the listener.

In counseling, empathy involves a deeper level of experiencing someone else’s feelings as one’s own. It is the “as if relating” that the Church Father, Ambrose, wrote about (see Part 4). Empathy involves a fellow feeling, a fellow sharing, a fellow suffering. Empathy is the ability to feel intimately what the other person is feeling. It is not just to understand what they are going through, but also being able to walk in the other person’s shoes—or soul. Empathy focuses on truly seeking to intimately know what the person in pain is experiencing.

Think of the prefix “sym” and its meaning—“with, or together with.” Placed with “pathos” or passion/feeling/experiencing, sympathy is “to feel with or for another person.” That’s good and beautiful.

Then consider the prefix “em” and its meaning—“in, into, or put into.” Together with “pathos,” empathy’s linguistic root meaning is “to feel into another person,” or “to place yourself in another person’s soul,” or “to put yourself into another person’s soul,” or “to enter into the experience of another person.”

Both words—sympathy and empathy—are good, useful terms. I use them both—often interchangeably. But I prefer empathy because of the depth and richness of the word—especially that emphasis on soul-to-soul connecting and intimate understanding of another person’s inner experiencing. I also prefer empathy because of how many biblical words overlap with the English word empathy (see below).

Empathy and Sympathy in the Current Controversy

If I correctly understand the concerns of the folks writing about “untethered empathy,” one concern they have is that a person may so connect and so identify with another person’s experience that they might never move toward the point of helping the person assess their experience biblically. This faulty approach to people-helping would mean that whatever the person is experiencing becomes “gospel truth.” Instead of this “malpractice” of “empathy,” in biblical counseling and biblical empathy we patiently and compassionately journey with a grieving person sharing our souls and sharing together gospel truth (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

This is what we saw in Part 7: encouragement is empathy’s companion. In empathy we see life from our friend’s perspective. In encouragement, we help our friend to see life from God’s perspective. Empathy and encouragement go hand-in-hand.

And we saw in Part 4 that in the deepest level of biblical empathy, we: a.) adopt their soul experience, b.) express their soul experience, c.) encourage them to accept their soul experience, and d.) help them evaluate their soul experience. As we said in Part 4:

No biblical counselor I know of suggests untethering biblical empathy from biblical encouragement.

Even most models of “secular counseling” address the potential misuse of empathetic connection. They use therapeutic concepts such as “therapist differentiation,” “counselee/counselor individuation,” “fusion,” “enmeshment,” and “boundaries” to explain that while counselors connect deeply with counselees through empathy, the counselor also maintains objectivity and seeks to help the counselee assess their own experiences.

15 Biblical Portraits of Empathy (and Sympathy) 

I’ll keep to bullet points in this final part of today’s post because we’ve covered biblical portraits of empathy throughout this blog mini-series. Again, I believe many biblical terms convey the ideas behind the English terms empathy and sympathy. And I believe that the biblical terms match up even better with the modern ideas of empathy than they do with the modern usages of sympathy.  

  1. Shared Sorrow: Biblical empathy is joining with sufferers in their suffering. It is mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) and suffering with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
  2. Climbing in the Casket: Listening compassionately to another person’s story of suffering and despair and grieving with them, even to the point of experiencing their pain. Another person’s casket experience of loss becomes our casket. Their sorrow becomes our sorrow.
  3. Compassionate Commiseration: As we identify with people in their suffering (co-passion and co-misery), we communicate that “it’s normal to hurt” and we give people “permission to grieve.”
  4. Em-Pathos: To enter the pathos or passion of another, to allow another person’s agony to become our agony (Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
  5. Jesus with Skin On: We suffer in the soul of another person, feeling with and participating in their inner world while remaining ourselves. We seek to understand their outer story and their inner story from their perspective. Like Jesus, and representing Jesus, we incarnationally enter into another person’s soul and experience their suffering as they experience it (Hebrews 2:14-18; Hebrews 4:15-16).
  6. As If Relating: “Show compassion for those who suffer. Suffer with those who are in trouble as if being in trouble with them.”[i]
  7. Koinonia: The Fellowship of Suffering: Seeking to grasp what it is like to experience and perceive the world through another person’s soul, eyes, and feelings by adopting their soul experience, expressing their soul experience, encouraging them to accept their soul experience, and helping them to evaluate their soul experience (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
  8. An Invitation to Lament: By reflecting back what another person feels and by reflecting the empathy of Christ, we become a mirror of clarity. The more clearly another person understands their own inner responses, the more powerfully and profitably they can take their soul to the Shepherd of their soul—facing their feelings face-to-face with Christ.
  9. Compassion: To feel another person’s agony; to lament empathetically; to be distressed when another is distressed; another person’s pain becoming our own; experiencing another person’s suffering as if it were our own (2 Corinthians 1:3-4; Isaiah 63:9).
  10. Sympatheo: To have fellow feelings with, to be touched and moved with the feelings of another’s infirmities, to share in the sufferings of another, to experience tender compassion with another, to experience the painful experiences and miseries of another (Hebrews 4:14-16).
  11. Deeply Moved and Troubled: To be moved with groaning and even indignation over the suffering of another, to be agitated, stirred up, and troubled at another person’s trouble, (John 11:33-36).
  12. Racham: This Hebrew word for loving, loyal compassion can be translated “the innards being moved and twisted in pain and pity”—being distressed when another is distressed (Isaiah 63:9).
  13. Splanchnizomai: To be moved with emotion and pity for someone in pain that leads from understanding to actions to help alleviate the pain; to enter intimately into the pain of another (Mark 1:41; Mark 6:34; Mark 8:2; Mark 9:22; Luke 7:13; Luke 10:33; Luke 15:20).
  14. Mourning with Those Who Mourn: To weep with, to share grief with, to lament with. To weep aloud, to express uncontainable, audible grief. Weeping, wailing, and even screaming out in sympathetic lament with another’s pain—bewailing on behalf of another—mourning for and with another person in their agony (Romans 12:15).
  15. Groaning: To howl to wail, to cry out in a dirge or lament, to give verbal expression of grief on behalf of another. To express grief by inarticulate or semi-articulate sounds—to groan (Romans 8:17-27).

The Rest of the Story 

I believe we’re near the end of this “mini-series” (not so mini any longer). I’m planning for the tenth and final post to focus on: 

Join the Conversation 

Considering the English meanings of the words sympathy and empathy, who has sympathized with you and who has empathized with you? Has one of those been more powerful for you than the other?

Of the 15 biblical portraits of empathy (and sympathy), which ones do you think you most want to develop further in your one-another ministry to others?


[i]Quoted in, Thomas Oden, Classical Pastoral Care, Vol. 3, p. 8, emphasis added.

The post 15 Word Pictures of Biblical Empathy: Empathy Is Biblical, Part 9 appeared first on RPM Ministries.

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