Sympathy and Empathy

Do you know anyone who has lost a loved one? A spouse, a child, a parent?

I’ve watched people around me lose those they love through illness, accident, old age, or even by self-inflicted means. And I’ve felt bad for them. Sympathy. Knowing about their loss and pain, without truly knowing loss and pain of a similar magnitude.

Is sympathy enough?

Sometimes it has to be, because it’s all we have to give. Still, while we say we understand or we know how the other person feels, we may not. Not really. How can we, unless we’ve had a similar experience? Even then, no two people are the same, no two relationships are the same, and no two losses are the same.

But even though every loss is unique, it’s empathy—not sympathy—that enables us to reach into the depth of our own feelings of pain and loss as we come alongside other hurting people.

Never have I been personally aware of this truth as much as I am now. There’s a sisterhood—and brotherhood—who are members of a club no one wants to join. The pain of loss is often near, regardless of how much time has passed. It hovers just below the surface, breaking through at unexpected moments in ways that leave you gasping for air as though a drowning man.

But that pain is what enables one person to come alongside another and say “I understand” in a way no one else can. Empathy. My heart and spirit are touched when another widow shares her similar circumstance. Or maybe she doesn’t say anything at all. Sometimes it’s enough for our eyes to meet in mutual pain, or to share a hug for physical comfort.

The need for empathy also transcends personal relationships or shared loss. It’s needed on a grander scale in our culture and in our world.

We’ve lost our collective ability to empathize. And if we haven’t lost our ability to empathize, then in many cases we’ve lost our desire. In the process, we’ve become adept at dehumanizing our fellow human beings. Political victories take center stage and are pursued regardless of the cost.

What would happen if we acknowledged others as being motivated by their own pain and need for acceptance? How can we come alongside and say, “I understand,” and then offer biblical alternatives for addressing their pain?

To be able to say to the pregnant young woman, “I haven’t experienced a crisis pregnancy, but I know what it is to be frightened as I face the unknown future. May I offer you practical resources and also share with you about the One who holds that future?”

Or to say to the person who chooses to deny God’s existence, “Trusting God was hard for me, too, because I’d been let down too many times to ever want to trust anyone again. May I share how this changed in my life?”

To really listen to those with whom we disagree politically or socially, and empathize with their hopes and dreams, even though we disagree with their goals and values.

Are we guaranteed to make a difference on a grand scale? No. Still, we might make a difference in the life of one person. And perhaps that’s the work God has for us to do at such a time as this.

Sympathy says, “you poor thing.” Empathy says, “I really do feel your pain.

Empathy does not require compromising our values, but it does allow us to truly hear the other person’s heart before we answer. In that moment, the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to equip us to respond with love, grace, and humility.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling critical or being drawn into a disagreement, ask God for the ability to reach down into your own pain for the empathy the other person desperately needs.

Have you received another person’s empathy?
How did you feel as a result?


 
Justice, Mercy, or Both?

Look around. Listen to the politicians. Read the headlines. Talk to your neighbors and coworkers. It won’t take long before two themes emerge.

Justice and mercy. But rarely do these two words occur in the same sentence, or even in the same conversation.

There’s a lot of talk about justice. Criminal justice. Social justice. We have a keenly developed sense of what we think is right and wrong. We demand justice for ourselves and for those who need us to stand up for them.

Problem is, we can’t seem to agree on what justice looks like in every situation. What does justice look like for illegal immigrants? Or for babies developing in the womb?

It all depends on our worldview and the values we espouse. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that even if we hold a biblical worldview, we fall short in executing righteous judgment. Because there’s only one righteous Judge.

Then there’s the subject of mercy. I was challenged this week from the Beatitudes to consider what it means to be merciful. “Blessed are the merciful…”

Mercy.

I love the sound of this word when it applies to me. Who doesn’t want to receive mercy? On the other hand, not many of us want to extend mercy.

Most people, myself included, prefer to hand out judgment. You’ve wronged me? I want you to receive the consequences of your actions. My natural inclination is not toward mercy…unless I am the recipient.

Still, there’s at least one Bible verse that includes both concepts, justice and mercy, in the same sentence.

Micah 6:8 (NIV) tells us:

“What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

We’re to act justly. Not demand judgment, but act with justice. Consider the other person’s circumstances and respond with justice, despite our own opinions or preferences.

We’re to love mercy. Interesting, it doesn’t say extend mercy. It says we’re to love it. Some translations use the word kindness instead of mercy. Because mercy is meaningless if it isn’t demonstrated in a tangible way.

But there’s a third part: “Walk humbly with your God.” In many ways, this is the most important phrase in the verse—the phrase that ties it all together. If we have a right view of ourselves in relation to the God we belong to, then justice and mercy will flow out of our relationship in Christ, prompted by the Holy Spirit who indwells us. Will we be perfect in our execution? Not even close. But we’ll be moving in the right direction.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Still, there’s a hitch. The verse begins by saying this is God’s requirement for us. And the fact that it’s a requirement tells us it doesn’t come naturally. For if acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God flowed naturally, we wouldn’t have to be commanded to do it.

They’re not natural. They are intentional choices.

And perhaps, before we take on the problems of the world, we need to start closer to home. With our spouses and children. Our family and friends. The people we work with Monday through Friday and the people we worship with on Sundays.

What would life look like if we really did—intentionally—act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?

Let’s find out!


 
The Trouble with Anonymity
Anonymity

Anonymity can bring pleasant surprises.

Someone ahead of you pays your bill in the drive-thru.

  Or you receive a card or gift in the mail from an anonymous friend.

 But anonymity can create problems, too. How many times have you been the victim of anonymity?

  Robo-calls trying to sell you something.

  Emails trying to scam you.

Annoying at best, harmful at worst.

And how many times have you victimized someone else under the cover of anonymity?

You haven’t?

Maybe you have and just don’t realize it.

Ever been on Facebook or other social media and said something you would never say face-to-face to your neighbor or a family member at Thanksgiving?

There’s something about typing and posting a comment that makes us forget the actual people who will read what we write. Seeing the words appear on our computer screen makes us feel good as we vent and rail against the apparent loss of common sense exhibited by “the other side,” regardless of which “side” we’re on.

Do we really think we’ll persuade anyone to agree with us if we resort to the kind of language we would never think to use face-to-face?

  • Obscenities tossed around by articulate, educated people, Christian or not.
  • Name-calling by professing Christians.
  • Words that roll off our tongues onto our keyboards, without thought of how they will be received.
  • Intelligent debate discarded in favor of personal attacks.
  • Disagreements that no longer even attempt to be civil.
  • Friends “unfriended” because we no longer tolerate hearing an opinion different from our own.

The antidote? Here are a few timely reminders:

  • Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
  • Proverbs 10:19 “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
  • Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
  • Proverbs 13:3 “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
  • Proverbs 15:1 “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
  • Proverbs 16:24 “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
  • Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…”
  • Proverbs 21:23 “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”
  • Matthew 12:36 “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak…”
  • Matthew 12:37 “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
  • Matthew 15:18 “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…”
  • Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
  • Colossians 4:6  “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt…”
  • James 1:26 “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

What would happen if we applied these verses to our lives and to our relationships?

Let’s try it and find out!


 
We Have Not Loved Well

We are to love well. Jesus said love would be the mark of His followers—love for each other and even love for their enemies.

But we have not loved well.

For 2,000 years, believers have bickered and fought with each other. Splitting hairs and splitting churches over minor disagreements and going to war over major ones.

And we’ve behaved even worse with those outside the faith. We’ve judged unbelievers when they behave like unbelievers. We criticize those who are different from us. Different social backgrounds from ours. Different ethnic heritages. And especially, different sins.

We’ve concluded that if someone’s sins are different from ours, their sin is worse. We create hierarchies of sin, with ours on the bottom rung of severity and theirs at the top.

Instead of taking a stand against injustice, we’ve sat on the sidelines, allowing the world to fight for the rights of the downtrodden.

And then along came a godly man who spoke truth and stood for righteousness. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called people to non-violent protests of unrighteous laws. Who called believers out in one of the saddest commentaries on the body of Christ.

In 1963, Dr. King said, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning…we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” While we may have made strides in this area, more than 50 years later many Christians still worship God with people who look and act like themselves—racially, socially, economically, and politically.

This year, our nation celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 21. In honor of MLK day, let’s consider some of his oft-repeated quotes. Quotes that spur Christians to live out their faith and testimony both inside and outside the body of Christ.

Quotes such as:

  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • “The time is always right to do what is right.”
  • “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
  • “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
  • “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Whether or not the body of Christ has loved well in the past, there’s always room for improvement. God’s Word has quite a bit to say on this subject, including these verses:

  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ESV).
  • “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV).
  • “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3 ESV).
  • “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14).
  • “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20 ESV).

Someday in eternity, we will all stand before the throne of God, praising Him for who He is and thanking Him for who we are: redeemed people from every tribe, language, and nation. Until that day, we still have many friends to make…and to love well.


 
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