The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy and Why It Makes All the Difference

August 25, 2016

Matthew 17:22-23

22 When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.


It’s easy to overlook texts like today’s from our present day vantage point. We know how the story ends, so we can relax with an “Everything is going to work out fine,” mentality. That’s not o.k. We must read and enter into this story from the vantage point of the disciples. To read passively as twenty-first century observers is to effectively locate ourselves in the “crowds” of the first century. The crowds marvel the mighty works of Jesus. They gladly listen to Jesus teach by the shore. They are grateful for satisfying meals of fish and chips (I mean bread). The crowd even learns a lot, and many people in the crowd have their desperate needs met by Jesus. But the crowds are not the disciples.

Crowds, at best, sympathize. Crowds simply aren’t capable of empathy. Sympathy causes us to feel sorry for another’s loss. Empathy leads us to enter into another’s loss with them. Did you notice the response of the disciples when Jesus told them this news about his impending death and resurrection? And the disciples were filled with grief. Do you remember the first response when Jesus first told them this at Casarea Philippi—that time Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus called him Satan? The response today moves them closer to Jesus. Sure, they are beginning to imagine what this loss will mean to them personally, but to be “filled with grief” is a step toward entering into what this news will mean personally for Jesus.

Have I ever empathized with Jesus? I’m not sure. I have considered my sin as part of the reason for Jesus’ suffering and death. I have felt bad for that. I have felt grateful for Jesus’ suffering and death in my place. Jesus has certainly entered into my suffering. The question is have I ever entered into his suffering? How would that be possible, you ask. Let’s remember another one of Paul’s prayers. Let’s call this one the “Prayer to get beyond adolescent faith;” aka The Prayer for Maturity.

“I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death; that I might somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to read a text like today’s from a pre-Easter Sunday vantage point. We must ask ourselves, what would that have been like to be one of those twelve disciples who had left everything to follow Jesus and who had witnessed the most extraordinary and unprecedented things imaginable and who had just gotten the news that things were about to take a fatal turn for the worse. You don’t even hear the “raised from the dead” part. It doesn’t register. You only hear that he’s going to be killed.

Maybe it’s kind of like when someone you love tells you they have been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Sure, you can cling to the promise and hope of eternal life for them, but that doesn’t provide a lot of comfort in the wake of this devastating discovery. You know what’s in store for them; how they will suffer loss after loss after loss until they have lost what seems like more than everything and only then will they die. To enter into this with them—that’s the calling of a disciple of Jesus. Sure, the crowd cares and they will go so far as to dump ice cold water on their heads while being recorded for an online challenge, but you will know what it means to experience this unfathomable loss from the inside. That’s love. It’s this journey that makes the promise of eternal life mean more than a passing platitude.

It’s just so easy for our knowledge of the outcome of the resurrection of Jesus to keep us from sharing in the shattering journey it took to get there. This is a hard concept to grasp.  I am stretching even to articulate it as such. I know not of what I speak, but I have a feeling that some who read this will know exactly what I’m talking about. Those are the ones we need to be following.


Lord Jesus, teach me your way of being with others in the midst of their suffering and losses so that I can learn to share in the fellowship of your suffering. Forgive me for the distant indifference I so often show you by blending into the crowd. I want to be a true disciple. Come Holy Spirit and make this possible. For the sake of your name, Jesus. Amen.


1. How do you understand the differences between sympathy and empathy?

2. What would it look like for you to take a step toward “sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death?”

3. What does it mean to enter into another person’s suffering when there is no way they can escape it? How does this change things?


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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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