The Risk (and High Calling) of Trading Sympathy for Empathy

March 22, 2018

Reagan Phillips, Childcare Team Director

Imagine with me walking up on someone down in a ditch. Our basic human instinct would be to tell them how to get out and offer help as we stood above them.  This is what sympathy looks like.  It is offering the person a snack as you stand in safety from the top of the ditch.  Empathy is choosing to climb down in the ditch with the hurting person.  Empathy is the willingness to tap into the dark parts of ourselves in order to feel with another.

Empathy is a lost art in our society today.  It is the ability to feel with another and is very different from sympathy. Sympathy feeds disconnection and sometimes condescension.  Empathy fuels connection and belonging.  A lifetime of empathic living was on full display at the recent funeral of my mother-in-law.  My mother-in-law never had her name in print for a blog post or articles.  She only stood on stage once at church to talk about God’s faithfulness to her and her family through her battle against cancer.  Jesus defeated her battle with cancer and as we celebrated her homecoming at her church, thousands of people showed up as if a celebrity had passed.  We, as her family, were surprised at the outpouring, but not shocked because of the way she had lived her life and her love for Jesus Christ.  Person after person, story after story pointed to a woman who humbly and not always quietly loved Jesus and that love overflowed to so many people.  This love was so evident in their stories because she was always the person’s favorite teacher, favorite Bible study leader, favorite friend.  I never knew it was possible to be best friends with as many people that came through that receiving line, yet she made every single one of them feel special.  And it was because she was always willing to love and hurt with those who were hurting.  She lived with great empathy. 

The risk of living empathically is being stuck together in the darkness. Romans 15 tells us “We who are strong have an obligation to BEAR WITH the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  The only way for both of you to get out the ditch together is first acknowledging the feelings of another as valid.  Acknowledging that this world is broken and not the way our Father intended.  Acknowledging that we are broken because of this broken world and acknowledging that we are hurt by broken people.  My challenge to all of us is to live a selfless life as Glenda Phillips did, choosing to get in the ditch with hurting people even if it means you get dirty. 

Valley of Dry Bones
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