Being a sympathetic person is different than being empathetic. Sympathy can be expressed by anyone whether they have experienced something or not. I can be sympathetic toward someone who has experienced the grief of losing a parent, but empathy requires you to have had the same experience. I cannot empathize with that person’ loss except in a general way about losing a loved one. Obviously, this was true of chronic pain as well. Before I had that experience, I can only say something like, “I am sorry you are going through that.” That is sympathy and can be meaningful, but empathy is being able to say, “I know what that’s like because I have experienced it.”
Note: (Some truly empathic persons may be able to genuinely feel others pain even without the same kind of experience, but this is the exception not the rule. Likewise, we can talk about trying to be empathetic by seeing someone’s situation through their eyes. This is a worthy endeavor, but I am talking about empathy that is earned and naturally genuine).
When my oldest was born with acid reflux, it was miserable. He was our first child and he screamed for hours every day. It was demoralizing to the extreme. I remember we got him in to see some kind of specialist and they ran some tests and came out and tried to tell us that it was normal! We couldn’t believe it. They didn’t even have sympathy. But I’ll never forget our pediatrician telling us that he had been through the same thing with his daughter. Even though it had been twenty years earlier, it meant so much to us that he could empathize with our suffering. We, in turn, got to empathize with others going through the same thing with their babies.
Many people view God as a distant deity, as sympathetic at best and indifferent at worst. Years ago, Joan Osborne sang a song that asked, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like the rest of us. Just a stranger on the bus just trying to make his way home?” The implication was that God doesn’t know what it is to be one of us. And even though we can say that God knows everything, God could not truly empathize with us unless he did become one of us. But that’s exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. Heb 4:15:
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Th high priest represented the people to God. Jesus is the perfect high priest because he represents us as fully human, yet not tainted with sin. He is both divine and human, but it is in his humanity that God is able to empathize with us.
Paul wrote about how their sufferings became a means for the comfort of others, just as Christ’s sufferings became comfort for them. 2 Cor. 1:3-7:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
This is the Christian view of empathy. Our God, who knows our struggles firsthand, comforts us and we, in turn comfort one another. That is what Broken and Mended is about. This is a community in which we experience empathy and give that blessing to each other.
No one signs up for chronic pain, but your endurance of it has given you the gift of empathy. When someone hurts every day of his or her life, even though their experience of pain may be very different than yours, you know what it is like to hurt every day too. Maybe we wouldn’t have wanted to acquire empathy on this matter, if we had a choice, but don’t let that gift go to waste. You may truly be a blessing to someone who desperately needs to know that they are not alone!