Pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are words we use to describe different degrees of emotion we can experience when being around pain in others. They’re all very different emotions, and God has them too, but in a far more interesting way.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. – Psalm 103:13
This infographic was created for a blog post explaining these four emotions, and how each one escalates the amount of engagement. While we experience them at different times, God is able to exhibit all of these at all times. He simultaneously acknowledges, cares about, has experienced, and works to ease our suffering. Let’s jump right in and see this is action.
The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of My people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their oppressors, and I am aware of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8
God has seen their pain, heard their pain, and is fully aware. This is pity, but the unique nature of God is increasingly showing us that he doesn’t experience only pity, but simultaneously escalates his engagement with our suffering, as it says here when describing God’s pity:
For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. – Psalm 72:12-14
It’s not enough that he has pity: by his nature he must care, he must have experienced what we feel, and he must do something about it. Continuing from the passage in Exodus, we see that “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians.” God immediately is going to do something about Israel’s suffering, which is compassion, his final engagement level. But wait, didn’t we skip something? We saw how God shows pity, which by his nature described in Psalm must be followed by sympathy and compassion, for “precious is their blood in his sight,” and “from oppression and violence he redeems their life,” respectively. So what about empathy? The one in between sympathy and compassion? Does God feel all of our pain? Did God feel Israel’s same suffering at any point, allowing him to have empathy? When did God ever experience, as Exodus describes Israel’s plight, oppression and suffering?
He was oppressed and afflicted – Isaiah 53:7
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering – Isaiah 53:4
This happened to Jesus, who is God. Even though to us Jesus suffered after Israel’s enslavement, to God and Isaiah, it was already done for the one who lives outside of time:
“For thus said the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy,” – Isaiah 57:15
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” – 2 Peter 3:8
God, at all points in time, had pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion on Israel. He heard their cries, was concerned for them, had experienced full well what they were going through, and had a plan to help bring them out. This is God’s perfect response to people’s pain. And if God does something, you can be sure he’ll do it again. Let’s look at another Old Testament passage next.
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”
He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. – 1 Kings 19:1-8
When Elijah prays, it wasn’t enough that God heard him and took his time answering the prayer. An Angel was already there. God heard Elijah with his pity, cared about his problem with his sympathy, has experienced being on the run with his empathy, and fed the prophet with his compassion. But how has God experienced people trying to kill him? How can God empathize with Elijah?
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. – Mark 11:18
This is right after Jesus comes to the temple and overturns tables, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” The priests want him dead, just like how Jezebel wanted Elijah dead for the same reason of driving out blasphemy. So God has certainly gone through what Elijah was experiencing.
Why Does This Matter
So what if God shows pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion all simultaneously and perfectly in response to our pain? So what? Well, we are called so many times to be like Jesus that the more we understand his nature, the more we can be more like him.
Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. – 1 John 2:6
But how can we exhibit the emotions we’ve gone over like God? How can we simultaneously have perfect balance of pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion? We can’t without listening, we can’t without caring, we can’t without suffering, and we can’t while we give into omission. Sin stops this from happening, but God gives us guidance on where to begin, and that’s where this post will end:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. – James 1:19
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. – Hebrews 13:3
Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without complaining. – 1 Peter 4:8-9
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. – Proverbs 14:31