Did you know that the Bible condemns the practice of sympathy?
15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Yes, showing sympathy to someone's plight is all too common in our culture and even in the church. We wish people well, we send condolences, we are sorry for someone's unfortunate circumstance, but we never do anything about it!
Jesus never called us to be sympathetic. He called us to be empathetic. It was something He practiced all the time during His ministry.
So what's the difference? How is sympathy different from empathy? Well, from what I have seen, sympathy is where you think understand how someone feels and you want them to feel better and you might even express that wish for them. Empathy, on the other hand, involves spending time with those afflicted or aggrieved or injured or marginalized in some way and then using what you have to help make their situation better.
Think about the story of the Good Samaritan, You all know it. A man is injured along the road, badly beaten and robbed. Two religious types, a priest and a Levite, pass him on the other side of the road. They do not help. They may have been sympathetic to his plight, but they had to be somewhere and also, they had to maintain ceremonial cleanliness as a requirement of their occupation. If they were made unclean by this man's blood, they would not be able to serve at the altar. They forgot that God prefers mercy to sacrifice (Hosea 6:6 I think).
However, a Samaritan passer by saw the man and his sympathy for the beaten and robbed man, turned into action. He gave medical attention to the man's wounds and paid to put him up in an inn until he was able to travel again. The story goes on from there, but this is a prime example of empathy and I will tell you why.
The Samaritan knew what it was to be looked down on, ignored, despised and feared. He knew the pain of the man that lay by the road and it drove him to act. He did not do this to be honored or rewarded or to receive public accolades. He did it because he cared - he had empathy.
Many times we church folks have a lot of sympathy for the plight of others. We see their need, we welcome them and then we fail to give them what they need to become a successful part of the body of Christ. We do not give of what we have to see to their needs in their time of trouble. We do a fair job of seeing to people's physical needs, but oft times we do not help with their spiritual needs because we find who they are to be distasteful for whatever reason. We welcome them, but then say, "you're on your own". We may not use those words, but our lack of action to help the spiritually injured says that in spades.
Many of us are blessed with spiritual wisdom and biblical knowledge that could help our less fortunate brethren. We have spiritual privilege. Those privileges should be used to help others, but instead we ignore the problems or offer sympathy and no empathy.
The world is full of people that need to hear what Jesus has to offer. Even so, we guard that information inside of spiritual fortresses in suburbia where we meet. We do not reach out to help. We might bring them in, but we do not give answers. Instead, we offer a smile, a welcome and polite conversation about lawnmowers and lunch with the mother in law over a latte a the church coffee shop.
Is this what Jesus called us to? Just wondering.