Sympathy, Empathy, and the Cross

It’s Good Friday and I am reminded how good it is that the Son of God partook of flesh and blood, suffered when tempted, and ultimately died. He did this so that we might be delivered from death and helped in every way as he works in our lives.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

This also reminds me of the recent conversation we had at our Westside Fellowship on 1 Peter 3:8, where God calls us to exhibit this same kind of sympathy in our lives towards others.

But should we really? Perhaps you’ve heard some people say we need to reject sympathy and strive for empathy instead. Or perhaps you’ve heard others say that empathy is the one that is dangerous and needs to go in favor of sympathy or compassion.

The problem is that because of several factors, we’re in a moment where there is a lot of confusion about these terms. If this is something you’d like to be less confused about, this article by Jonathan Worthington will help.

🔗 Navigating Empathy

One fascinating thing Worthington points out is that the English word empathy does not correspond to what you’d think would be the corresponding Greek word. The Greek word, ἐμπάθεια (empátheia), rarely occurs in Greek and originally meant something quite different from what anyone is proposing today, namely, a kind of intense emotion such as deep sadness, anger, or sexual passion that had nothing to do with how one “felt with” another person. Today, in Modern Greek, it just means “hatred or malice.” Which is why Paul would not have used this word to describe the compassionate feeling of another’s emotions—it just didn’t mean that. And it doesn’t mean that in English either.

Surprisingly, our word does not come from the Greek, but the German word Einfühlung, which meant to project oneself into something else, as in art appreciation. “When Edward Titchener converted Einfühlung from art appreciation to British psychology, he should have gained a Greek-ish term “eispathy” instead of borrowing εμπάθεια. But he didn’t.”

So our English word isn’t directly related to the Greek, but to the German. Our word involves: “moving yourself into someone else’s mental and emotional shoes to walk around from their perspective for a time, especially to help them.” Which is a necessary and godly thing to do.

The bottom line, however, is that no matter what you call it in English, is that “Jesus understands and experiences our perspective and emotions from our vantage point, without losing truth or becoming enmeshed, so as to help us in the most effective way for our good.”

And because he did this, we can confidently come to the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb 5:16), even if what we are needing is a more loving, Christ-like heart.

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