There is a word in the Greek New Testament that we inadequately translate as “sympathy”: splagchnizomai. It means something like “to be moved in the intestines” or more perhaps more succinctly “gut wrenching compassion.”
In Luke 10 the Samaritan who sees the man who has been beaten and robbed is moved by splagchnizomai; in Matthew 18 the master tells the unforgiving servant that he should have had splagchnizomai for his fellow servant even as the master had for him; and in Matthew 9 this is what Jesus feels for the crowds that follow him. Just as a few examples.
Maybe I am one of those people too moved by stories, too imaginative in my empathy, too burdened by a sense of responsibility in things I cannot control but I understand splagchnizomai. I have felt it this week, yesterday even. I turned off the news on the way to the office today so that I wouldn’t feel it. It hurts, it is unpleasant. Not a thing to be sought.
But maybe the problem is we don’t feel it enough. We have traded splagchnizomai for sympathy, we have traded the feelings that Christ had and valued for pity. Sympathy is what you feel when you see a child scrape her knee. You are sorry she is in pain, you recognize that she is frightened, but you know in a few moments it will be OK. When someone’s dog dies you feel sympathy at their loss, but you know that life goes on.
Splagchnizomai, on the other hand, is what you should feel for the homeless couple where the wife is experiencing gestational diabetes, for the woman about to loose her house because she cannot get disability after breaking her back, for the person who fled their home to keep their children out of the hands of the gangs only to have them stolen at the door to their destination, for people living in misery for lack of adequate healthcare and nutrition, and…may God have mercy…for tens of thousands of others.
The difference between sympathy and splagchnizomai is not just one of intensity, it is one of results. Sympathy might move us to small reactions of comfort and condolence, splagchnizomai makes us want to change the world. Sympathy is a dull soft feeling, splagchnizomai is sharp and hot. Sympathy is polite splagchnizomai is radical.
As a Christian splagchnizomai should be our default reaction to suffering and injustice and systems and people that perpetuate them. If your sympathy and compassion is not gut wrenching then there is something wrong.