People often use the words empathy and sympathy interchangeably. It's largely understood as the same concept, but empathy is just an improved version of sympathy.
Sympathy is the ability to hear about someone else's pain or struggle and to care about their experiences. It's incredibly useful when you hear someone else in pain and you don't feel anything other than, "suck it up." You pause for a moment and try to see the experience through their eyes.
This isn't an easy thing to do and many of us talk about sympathy like it's an easy thing to have or share. We usually mean that we understand they are saying something painful, but we've never actually done the work to understand what they are saying from their point of view. What we're feeling is most commonly understood as pity. Pity is the ability to recognize that someone else is suffering. While a vital step that moves us from being cold or indifferent, it's not much beyond that.
Sympathy requires that I see the situation from your perspective and I actually care about your pain. I move from receiving information to caring about the information that I receive.
Empathy is one step further to actually feel the suffering as if the experience was yours. It's probably best to visualize this so that you can see the progression between the 3.
Pity --------> Sympathy ------------> Empathy
I see your pain I care about your pain I feel your pain
We overuse empathy without understanding what the word means and the time required to actually get to that place. We tell people we feel their pain when we actually just care about or see their pain.
One of the great hopes in Christianity is its ability to move us towards empathy. To feel the pain of others is a byproduct of not seeing a separation between ourselves and others. We experience the whole of humanity as one creation of God and suffering in the world matters to me because it's my suffering too. Jesus came to heal the whole world and my healing is connected to other people's healing.
While this can be an overwhelming idea, the hope is that identification with all people leads to an activated church that is working for the healing of all people.