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  • Rick LoPresti

Apathy, empathy, and sympathy

This life and this world are not heaven. Sometimes people foolishly think they can make this world perfect and eliminate adversity. This will never happen by the hand of man for several reasons. One is because the sinful nature of man is the cause and underlying problem. Man cannot save himself by himself without God who is the only Savior (Is 43:11, Acts 4:12). Even the noblest intentions inevitably fail on their own (Rom 7). Directly related to this is that man tends to deal with symptoms rather than the cause. We decry symptoms in society but never deal with the root issues causing them, so we just spin our wheels and get nowhere. Another reason is because some people are not actually serious about correcting problems. They just want to feel good about themselves and their superficial efforts at activism. They hypocritically look down on others as inferior to their alleged moral superiority while in reality their lives are full of evil and aren’t really making a substantive difference. Deep inside they know this but since they reject God’s plan to deal with it, they are left powerless to effect real change. The humanists and materialists will never get to the real issues of life and how to help them. Playing the blame game without personal responsibility and balanced truth will not help either.

This may be a bit simplistic, but there are three basic responses to the issues of life - apathy, empathy, and sympathy. Apathy is defined as lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. It comes from the Greek word apatheia which means a lack of feeling or emotion. Ephesians 4:19 speaks of those who “being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness”. The word there for the phrase past feeling includes the definitions to be callous, cease to feel pain, be apathetic, and dispirited. It is ironic that we live in a time with so much talk of feelings and being offended and also so much apathy. People have only become concerned with their own self-centered “feelings” and “offenses” which are often false perceptions of reality, and they are simultaneously apathetic toward the truth about themselves and others. Just watch videos of “protestors” who are often not really protesting anything being challenged with facts about the issue and responding not with facts but emotional ad hominin attacks, vulgarity, and even violence which they hypocritically claim to decry. They claim to want to have a voice but also want to silence those who are trying to have a reasonable discussion and disagree with their agenda because of the facts about it. Instead of answering legitimate questions, they ignore them. This is not the path to effective change. Some people respond with apathy because of discouragement about how they see the world. They don’t have hope that things can be better and that they can do anything about it. Apathy is never a healthy or effective response.

Another possible response is empathy. In most cases, this is the best response. Empathy is neither apathy nor sympathy. It is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The key word is understanding. Empathy is not apathy because we relate to how a person is feeling, but neither is it sympathy. Empathy does not necessarily agree with or validate how someone is feeling, but it cares and wants to help. It is sensitivity without direct participation. Some people like to reject the empathy of others by saying, “You have no right to discuss this issue because you have never been through it yourself”. This is a selfish fallacy for several reasons. Everyone has been through adversity, so although it may not be the exact same circumstances, we call all relate and care on some level. This also exalts one’s problems above others and sets them up as the supreme victim. Victimhood is unbiblical and counterproductive. Everyone has been a victim of something, but that does not mean we have to choose victimhood as our identity. Successful, productive people choose to overcome, forgive, and move on. You don’t have to commit the exact same mistake as someone else or suffer the exact same wrong against you to be able to empathize with the human condition in this world. Empathy simply says, “I care. I understand. I want to help.”

Another possible response is sympathy. Apathy, empathy, and sympathy all have the common Greek word pathos in them. Yet there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be the right response in some situations. Jesus had sympathy. He can be “be touched with the feeling (the Greek word sympatheō) of our infirmities (Heb 4:15)”. A similar word is compassion which Jesus also had. The word most often translated compassion in the New Testament means to be moved as to one's bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity). It also means to have sympathy or pity. Empathy imagines what the person feels while sympathy means to actually feel it. Sympathy can be an effective response because we are more directly connected to the other person through it. “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep (Rom 12:15).” Yet sympathy can also be an ineffective response when we need to let Biblical principles and our rational mind govern our feelings. For example, you can empathize with someone who is asking for money, but sometimes you cannot sympathize by giving it to them because you know they are going to use the money irresponsibly. Sometimes we have to realize when people are just trying to take advantage of us and resist the temptation to sympathize. Sometimes people’s perceived needs are not their actual needs, and we need God to give us discernment so we can truly help people and not be enablers of error. It is still only the truth that makes us free (Jn 8:31-32). Sometimes people make a good appearance of being sincere, but we need to go a little deeper than appearances like Jesus did (Jn 2:23-25). He had compassion on the hungry multitude and miraculously fed them (Mk 15:32). Yet when they pursued Him for a free meal, instead of giving it He told them what the true bread from heaven is (Jn 6:26-27).

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