Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’
-Author and speaker Brene Brown
There’s a fundamental difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is acknowledging someone’s pain. Empathy is allowing yourself to feel that pain. Sympathy looks at the person from a distance and says, “Oh man, let me fix that.” Empathy enters into the person’s pain and says, “Let me be with you in this pain.”
As Dr. Neel Burton says “For me, to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling.”
In other words, sympathy is well-meaning but shallow and easy. Empathy is hard, deliberate work.
When it comes to the persecuted church then, do we feel sympathy or empathy? Oftentimes the soul-crushing scope and horror or the stories we hear create a barrier inside us. To know there is such pain in the world forces us to see the privilege of our own position and to be forced out of our comfort. For some of us, it might challenge a subconscious view of God we’re holding on to: “As long as I’m good he wouldn’t let something like that happen to ME.”
And so we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters out of sympathy. We see them as an “other,” across the world, in situations we can’t imagine and offer a quick prayer for THOSE people over THERE dealing with THAT. It allows us to do our prayerful duty, but to keep our hearts safe from the fear and sadness we don’t want to feel.
Praying with empathy is something else. Praying with empathy means we linger on the stories we hear.
We allow ourselves to imagine being in a North Korean prison camp, separated from our family, starving to death. We feel the ostracization of the Pakistani Christian ostracized from his own family because of his faith. We feel the fear of the Christian villagers in Nigeria who wonder if an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria will steal their children next.
We are told repeatedly in the New Testament that the defining trait of the church is unity. We are all one Body. But this isn’t a reality that we can live in easily. Being unified with our brothers and sisters a world away involves being informed, creating space for that information to wreck our hearts, and allowing that wreckage to become a lament to our Father in heaven—a God who, we must remember, has entered into the pain of His people and sees every moment of suffering in the world. We serve a God who is the very definition of empathy.
The persecuted church needs more than our prayers of sympathy—it needs soulful petitions of empathy.
They need us to not feel bad for them but to prayerfully enter into the struggle with them.