Sympathy vs. Compassion in Truth-Filled Love
We often speak here of Paul's words in Ephesians 4:15, that we grow by "speaking the truth in love". Paul means that we each speak particular truths about Christ to each other, in a way that corresponds to that person's true condition. Christ is what we need most; to "give" him to another is to love that one. This is how we grow spiritually, to be more like the body of Christ.
But how do we get in the position to really speak truth, while at the same time loving the other person? It may be helpful to first think of what does not get us in that position. When we think of helpful conversation between Christian friends, we often think of it in terms of "emotional sympathy" - putting ourselves in the other's shoes, feeling their pain. But while this may be socially appropriate, emotional sympathy is not actually required for loving the other person. This may seem surprising, but in fact, adopting upon ourselves the other person's emotions in a similar intensity can actually impede compassion. Compassion and sympathy are not the same. Compassion seeks to understand the other in truth in order to give them what they truly need. Sympathy may give safe harbor to emotions that grow out of the idols of our heart, while compassion seeks what is needed - ejection of those idols, those competitors with Christ.
Compassion does require empathy, but a form of empathy that utilizes more of our thinking abilities and less emotional sympathy. This kind of empathy actually requires deeper listening, to understand what's really true about the other person. This positions us to then speak truth about Christ that more closely corresponds to what's really going on. Paradoxically, the emotionally cold person may actually be the most compassionate - the one who can see most clearly what the other person needs, because their view is not obscured by emotions - their own or those of the other person. Having understood the truth, they are best positioned to give the person what they need, out of love for them.
I don't mean we should pursue coldness - this kind of compassion can still be delivered warmly! What matters most is getting at the truth, the truth about who we really are and who Christ is, and lovingly helping the other see both. So we speak the truth to our neighbor (Eph. 4:25). And we humbly welcome this from others, not threatened by it, but secure in the blood of Christ, knowing that they're his means of grace to us