em- + -pathos = joined + feeling
I feel what you feel, but I can respond like you should even when you think you can’t.
Sometimes people get paralyzed by their deep hurts, or crushing depression, or infuriating anger. Someone in sympathy feels the pain, the depression, the anger, but their involvement stops at the feeling stage.
Someone in empathy feels the hurt AND responds in an appropriately healthy way.
Check out what Paul wrote:
Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? (New Living Translation)
When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. (The Message)
Paul took those feelings his friends and loved ones were experiencing and he turned them into positive action. This is challenging and desperately needed.
Sympathy is easy; empathy is hard work.
Sympathy keeps people paralyzed; empathy helps them move forward.
Sympathy enables people to remain unchanged; empathy gives people a healthy way to respond.
If you want to help your hurting, discouraged, or angry friend, don’t sympathize with her hurt, empathize to help her heal. By responding in a healthy way—a way she isn’t able to yet—and you will help her move to a place of wholeness.