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Relational Evangelism

Weeping with those who weep.

By April 25, 2024May 1st, 20245 Comments

Weeping with those who weep

Knowing how empathy differs from sympathy 

A grocery store check-out clerk once wrote to advice-columnist Ann Landers to complain that she had seen people buy “luxury” food items—like birthday cakes and bags of shrimp—with their food stamps. The writer went on to say that she thought all those people on welfare who treated themselves to such non-necessities were “lazy and wasteful.”  

A few weeks later Lander’s column was devoted entirely to people who had responded to the grocery clerk. One woman wrote:  

I didn’t buy a cake, but I did buy a big bag of shrimp with food stamps. So what? My husband had been working at a plant for fifteen years when it shut down. The shrimp casserole I made was for our wedding anniversary dinner and lasted three days. Perhaps the grocery clerk who criticized me would have a different view of life after walking a mile in my shoes. 

Another woman wrote: 

I’m the woman who bought the $17 cake and paid for it with food stamps. I thought the check-out woman in the store would burn a hole through me with her eyes. What she didn’t know is the cake was for my little girl’s birthday. It will be her last. She has bone cancer and will probably be gone within six to eight months.1 

If we’re honest, we have all been on the wrong side of the register at times. We note the actions of others, assume we have the whole story and rush to judgement. However, we must guard against this response especially in evangelism and discipleship and we must seek to show empathy.  

Defining Empathy 

Empathy is being able to place oneself in the position of another person and understand his or her emotions or feelings. It is the skill of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. But do not confuse empathy with sympathy. These words are often used interchangeably but there is a subtle difference. Sympathy is to have compassion for another person’s condition and desire that something be done for the person. Empathy is perspective-taking and trying to imagine the situation from another’s point of view. For example, your co-worker is overwhelmed with a deadline and expresses to you that they will be working all weekend to finish the job. The sympathetic person may feel badly about the situation and even express as much but the empathetic person imagines what it feels like to be in that position and shows up with coffee and muffins on Saturday morning.  

Perhaps this was part of the lesson Jesus was teaching his disciples when He fed the crowd in Luke 9. Jesus’ disciples sympathized with the crowd and noted they must be hungry (v. 12). The disciple’s sympathy showed in their desire that something to be done about the hunger of the crowd. Their solution was to send the people away so they could help themselves. Jesus, on the other hand, exhibited empathy. He understood the need of the people, put himself in their place and was determined to do something about their condition. In the end he got involved and met the need. Empathy moves us to action in evangelism. It feels the burden of those who are trapped in sin and moves us to offer relief found in the Gospel. 

Developing Empathy for others 

Empathy is essential in evangelism and discipleship. The person with whom you’re sharing Jesus must sense your genuine concern for them. Unfortunately, in our efforts to give the gospel we sometimes come across as simply fulfilling a religious duty but unconcerned about the person to whom we’re speaking. Considering our own sin and God’s grace helps us to develop empathy. We must ask ourselves these questions: Where would I be apart from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ? What sin would I be trapped in? How would I be frustrated with life and how would I view life differently?  

In truth, we can all show empathy for the those with whom we share Christ because we were all lost and have received mercy. In the book of Jude, (v. 21) we are encouraged with the thought that we are “waiting for the mercy of our Lord.” We have received mercy from God but in an ultimate sense we will receive mercy at the return of Christ. At that moment we will be saved from the very presence of sin. The mercy of our Lord is what believers receive. As recipients of great mercy, we must be willing to extend the same to others. “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). Empathy for others grows from a fuller understanding of God’s kind mercy to me. When I consider my plight and God’s mercy it makes me empathetic in dealing with others. 

Empathy and sharing the gospel are inseparable. They must go hand in hand if we are to see the miracle of conversion take place. To have empathy but not engage in evangelism and discipleship is not helpful, and to engage in evangelism without empathy is ineffective and at worst offensive. 

  1. The Personal Touch, Williams, Terrie, Warner Books, 1994. 

Matt Fagan is the Lead Pastor at Heritage Baptist Church of Windham, New Hampshire and serves as an Exchange Trainer. Contact Matt about leading an Exchange Training Event or to discuss this article at [email protected]

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Jack Ziadeh says:

    How right you are, Even Christians sometimes are judgmental about those same things you mentioned, and I’m not excluded

  • Jacque Lee says:

    I have often wondered the difference. I think I can grasp it now I do feel for people that don’t understand about Jesus Christ. Amen.

  • Pst.Titus M.Musembi says:

    This was an insightful thought differentiating between sympathy and Empathy and relating it to Evangelism.

  • Mary Ann Robbins says:

    Thank you for that explanation. I will try to be more involved to show empathy instead of sympathy. Words are cheap where actions show that you really care.

  • Doug Woodman says:

    Thank you for that explanation. It made me see that i was just trying to simply fulfilling a religious duty and was not showing empathy instead and I will try to be more involved to show empathy instead.

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