Sympathy vs. Empathy

Dear Church Family,

I recently finished reading Rosaria Butterfield’s recent book Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age in which the author addresses five lies which she formally believed, but concerning which she has since repented:

(1) Homosexuality is normal
(2) Being a spiritual person is kinder than being a biblical Christian
(3) Feminism is good for the world and the Church
(4) Transgenderism is normal
(5) Modesty is an outdated burden that serves male dominance and holds women back

If the reader needs any sort of verification that the author might be on to something, one only needs to look to the Amazon listing of the book which comes with a warning label: “Confronts Controversial Topics Including Sexuality, Faith, Feminism, Gender Roles, and Modesty | Bible-Centered Perspective.” If you are familiar with Butterfield’s other works, then you’ll find that in this book she writes with the same biblically and confessionally based clarity and directness as she has in the past. If you are unfamiliar with Butterfield’s works, I recommend reading her spiritual testimony in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey in Christian Faith (apparently, one’s personal story of salvation needs no warning label from Amazon).

Empathy versus Sympathy

Along with Secret Thoughts, I recommend Five Lies, but I don’t intend to give a full review. Rather, I mention Butterfield’s recent book in order to introduce a distinction that she addresses that I don’t think I had ever considered or thought about: the difference between empathy and sympathy.

As it turns out, “empathy” is a relatively new word that didn’t enter the English language until the early part of the twentieth century. The term was coined as part of studies in modern psychology to speak of how one might mentally identify with another person in order to better understand him. “Sympathy,” on the other hand, is a much older word that describes how one might be affected by the suffering or grief of another person, grieve with them, and long for a solution.

While recognizing that empathy has a place in our lives, Butterfield draws on the insights of Joe Rigney to argue that empathy can be dangerous (see Rigney’s articles “Do Your Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues” and “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion”).

Butterfield writes,

“If someone is drowning in a river, jumping in with him may break up his loneliness, but having two drowned people produces an even greater problem. Sympathy allows someone to stand on the shore, on the solid ground of objective truth where real help might be found. Empathy’s intent is good – connecting with another person in pain. But when the person in pain needs to be rescued, empathy leads to alienation. This constant state of alienation reiterates the false idea that there is no real help available and that all we have is loneliness – the autonomous individual seeking meaning in his own pain” (Five Lies, 101-102).

Elsewhere, Butterfield makes a poignant application of why this distinction between empathy and sympathy matters, “This means that when your daughter comes home from college and tells you that she is a man named Rex, you ought to feel sympathy, because something is terribly, dreadfully wrong with your daughter” (Five Lies, 100).

Values versus Virtues

Not long after finishing Five Lies, I listened to some instruction in pastoral counseling from a licensed therapist who professed to be a Christian. The basic premise of the instruction was that the therapist or counselor ought never to impose his own personal understanding of truth or reality on the person he is counseling, the counselee. That, in his mind, would be unprofessional, authoritarian, and abusive. The repeated refrain in the lecture was that the pastoral counselor’s purpose is “to help the counselee figure out what’s most important to them and then help them to be more congruent with that.”

I don’t think I need to point out the flawed reasoning and unbiblical nature of such a way of thinking. One can easily take that premise to an absurd conclusion to show the danger of it (how should one counsel the man whose most important personal value is inflicting pain on other people and murder). Similarly, the Scriptures enjoin believers to change their value systems (for example, Jesus commands believers to stop thinking and living like the world but to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, Matthew 6:32).

It seems to me that this therapist was promoting empathy to the exclusion of sympathy, elevating personal values over objective virtues. Though professing to be a Christian, he had bought into the lie of moral and ontological relativity – all in the name of empathy.


I’m grateful that our Savior doesn’t empathize with my sin; Jesus doesn’t ‘walk in my shoes,’ learning what it’s like to be a weak sinner in order to better understand me. Instead, the Scriptures tell us that we have a great high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, who was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Thus, we are all the more encouraged to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Venerating the virtue of sympathy is not to denigrate empathy or the empathetic person, but it does help to better understand how we are ultimately helped and how we may lovingly serve others. Just as we recognize our need of a sympathetic Savior, we may point others to Jesus as the one who can ultimately help them. A better approach for the one who provides counsel – indeed for every Christian – is to help people figure out what’s most important to Christ and then help them to be more congruent with that.

Unfortunately, standing for the truths of God’s Word in our anti-Christian age may seem authoritarian, abusive, and arrogant to the world. Sometimes, there is nothing that we can do about being slandered and reviled. Yet, it is all the more necessary, therefore, that when we seek to sympathize, counsel, and give an account for the hope that is in us, that we do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:14-16). 

The Lord be with you!
Pastor Peter M. Dietsch