The precision of the words we use to describe our motives is important in the outcome we hope. Most of us have a desire to make a difference and to contribute positively to others and the overall human condition. Sometimes our intentions and the end result don’t match.
When we see someone in need whom we would like to assist, there are two words which can be used to describe how we feel; “compassion” or “sympathy.” While they are likely used interchangeably, they are not the same and our operation from one or the other will bring about either satisfaction or disappointment in the outcomes.
The word for “sympathy” is used one time in the New Testament and it is in 1 Peter 3:8 which encourages us to have sympathy with one another. The meaning of the original word is “suffering or feeling” with one another. It is the joining of the other person in their pain. It’s not bad, it is actually encouraged as part of community. It’s different from compassion, though.
There does not appear to be a single instance where a reaction from Jesus was described as sympathy. There are, however, numerous times where Jesus responded with compassion (e.g. Matt 14:14, Matt 15:32, Matt 20:34). The word for compassion describes an emotion that manifests deep within a person and moves them. Jesus walked in compassion; a deep-seated emotion for the benefit of people who moved Him to action on their behalf.
The difference is huge. Jesus didn’t suffer with them; He acted in a way that brought them out of their suffering. We are called to sympathize with each other and we are invited into the Kingdom of King Jesus to operate under His mantle of compassion through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited into the process of restoration and healing that is needed in the lives of people all around us. A defeated, powerless multiplication of suffering through sympathy alone will not make the most of what is available to us through the Cross. The rising up from within us at the notice of injustice and suffering is a call to arms as much as a reason to mourn.
“For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” 1 Corinthians 4:20.