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Have Sympathy

The quickest way to a heart is through a wound.

Weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:15b

The ring of the phone didn’t stop the sobs. But the compassion I heard in Mary’s voice did.

How are you doing, Ab? Please know my heart was breaking for you the second Sarah shared her happy news. I am so sorry you haven’t been able to share news of your own. I love you. I’m praying. 

Mary just knew. She wasn’t even in boat. She had two gorgeous kids of her own. But twelve years older and a state away, Mary still felt the ache of my empty womb. She knew my pain. She knew that after five years of trying, the news of each sister and friend and sister’s friend who conceived was a huge blow.

Feeling Sympathy

Some people naturally bleed sympathy. They’re the ones who know just when to hug and don’t pat your back when they do and always have tissues and ice packs and band aids all ready. They’re the ones like Mary. Pricked by others’ pain, they bleed compassion.

Our word sympathy comes from two Greek words. The first means to be affected or to feel something. The other word simply means with. Sympathy, therefore, means to feel something with. It might include words, as did Mary’s. But sympathy always goes deeper than words.

Sympathetic friends don’t often say, “I know how you feel,” since they truly do know how you feel, they know it’s not so helpful to say it. Lots of times, sitting in silence is truest mark of the sympathetic soul. Job’s friends sat in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, because they saw his suffering was great. And more silence might have been golden.

Henri J.M. Nouwen must have had sympathetic friends too. He describes them, the ones 

[W]ho, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. (Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life)

Replaying Mary’s message in my mind chokes me up still. She left that message fifteen years ago. And that’s not to mention all the times in that decade of waiting when Mary sat silent beside me. Neither of us even knew if God would ever open my womb, if I’d ever share that happy news.

Regardless, sympathy melts hearts faster than summer sun melts ice cream and Mary locked her place in my heart with a single phone call. With and without words, Mary walked beside me in that barren land and her sympathy went straight to my heart.

Maybe you are one of those sympathetic souls like Mary who ooze comfort and sympathy.

I’m not naturally that way.

All Call To Compassion

I’m Irish for sure. But I’m German, too. And wir Deutsche- well, you know what they say. We don’t wear our emotions on our sleeve and we keep a stiff upper lip. And we expect others to, too.

But German ancestry aside, sympathetic simply isn’t in the top ten words I’d pick to describe myself. In parenting- and I fear in friendship-I’m more of the deal with it type. You’ve made your bed. You lie in it. Bear up. Carry on. Not that I don’t give hugs and cry with friends who cry, from time to time. But it doesn’t always come naturally.

But that doesn’t really matter, if it’s natural or not, because all Christians are called to it. In Ephesians 5:29-30 Paul describes how Christ nourishes and cherishes us, his church, because we are members of his body. And If one member suffers, all suffer together

In light of Christ’s concern for his Body, it’s no wonder that Peter the Rock on whose confession the church was built, would sound this clarion call that we have tender concern for each other. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind. All of you. Hard or easy, natural or not. Have sympathy.

And sympathy has its rewards.


Sympathy’s Rewards

Is it bad to say, Have sympathy so? To motivate compassion by sharing its perks? I’m not sure, but the God who created us knows us inside and out. And He did build in some perks for his Body to have sympathy.

1. Having sympathy pleases God.
Our compassion for God’s other children, makes our Heavenly Father happy, Sympathy gently mortifies our selfishness. Having sympathy means we are like Timothy, of whom Paul gave this high praise, I have no one like him, who is genuinely concerned for your welfare


Having sympathy looks a lot like the Son of God. Hebrews 4:15 describes Jesus as a sympathetic high priest. God loves to see us looking more and more like Jesus. Sympathy conforms us to the image of his Son.


2. Having sympathy can keep pain from getting proud
Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost For His Highest famously wrote, Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. 
Pastor Chris Brooks recently observed that fractious separatist movements start when people don’t get sympathy. I don’t fully understand #BlackLivesMatter, but probably somewhere back there was a lack of sympathy. Rather than enable self-pity and victimhood, sitting with a suffering soul might actually reduce the odds of both. Sorrows shared are sorrows halved. 

3. Having sympathy forges strong friendships. 
I will never forget Mary’s sympathy. Odds are, your closest friends have sat silent or cried with you. They’ve shown you sympathy. Genuine sympathy builds trust like not much else can. 

And strong friendships are are platforms for influence. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If the time should come when hard words must come, a foundation of love has already been laid.

The quickest way to a heart, I’ve heard it saidis through a wound.

Commanding A Feeling

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 1 Peter 3:8

How can Peter do that? How can he command us to have a feeling? How can you force yourself to care for someone else’s concerns? Behavior? Sure. We can do the deed: Show hospitality. Give to needy. Pray.  

But feelings? Can we change those? Can we possibly muster up feelings of compassion and concern and pity?

We can. If God commands, it, he he will enable it. We work out as he works in. Nature can be changed when God is involved. Pastor H. C. Atwool explains,

There is nothing truer than the common saying that habit is a sort of second nature, and we all know that we have it in our power to contract very much such habits as we wish. This fact is at the bottom of all our plans for bringing up our children, that is to say, if we try to bring them up after any sensible plan at all…The fact of being less disposed to feel for other people is no excuse for not trying to do it. We many cultivate it like any other habit, only far more effectually by the grace of God, till it almost seems natural to us to have compassion one of another.  

J.H. Jowett preached in England at the end of the 19th century. He reached the same conclusion when he considered Peter’s all call for us to have a feeling which doesn’t always come so easy. He describes a sort of two-part process- two God-ordained means, if you will, to grow sympathy.

These can take us from Be strong and carry on, to having genuine sympathy.

Commune And Imagine

Let our piety be the basis of our pity; let our imagination extend our vision; and from this area of hallowed outlook there will arise rivers of gracious sympathy. 

John H. Jowett

1. Commune with God. That’s the first step in growing sympathy in our own souls. When we abide in his Word,  the Holy Spirit renews us. He is our Refiner and Counselor and Comforter. The Helper is with us and His purpose, Jowett reminds, is to renew us from the inside out.

“We are renewed by His Spirit in the inner man.” The Refiner renews our spiritual substance, takes away our drossy coarseness, and makes our spirits the ministers of refinement. And what are the conditions of obtaining refinement? The conditions are found in communion: “His Spirit in the inner man”: it is fellowship between man and his Maker; it is the companionship of the soul and God. All lofty communion is refining! All elevated companionships tend to make me chaste! We can see its ministry in the lives of the saints. Lay your hand upon any one, man or woman, who walks in closest fellowship with the risen Lord, and you will find that the texture of their life is as the choicest porcelain, compared with which all irreligious lives are as coarse and common clay. In fellowship we find the secret of spiritual refinement, and in spiritual refinement are found the springs of sympathy. 

So, the first “step” to having more sympathy is taking time with God. The more time we spend in Christ’s company the more we become like him. Our pity, our sympathy, is born of our piety. 

But then there is this second step. It might surprise you.

2. Work your imagination. Disciplined imagination grows sympathy in our souls. We must use the power God has given us to imagine what our eyes have not seen. Mary must have worked get imagination so hard, to sympathize so tenderly with me.

“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Such vision calls for the exercise of the imagination. “Put yourself in his place.” Such transposition demands the ministry of the imagination…Imagination is second sight. Imagination is the eye which sees the unseen. Imagination does for the absent what the eye does for the present. Imagination does for the distant what the eye does for the near. 

Then Jowett gives an example of putting sanctified imagination to work. Let’s say we read a sad fact, say a newspaper headline. It might say,

 “Total of patients treated in the Queen’s Hospital… 31,064.” The eye observes the surface fact and passes on, and pity is unstirred. The imagination pauses at the surface, lingers long, if perchance she may comprehend something of its saddening significance. Imagination turns the figures over; 31,064! Then these afflicted folk would fill twenty buildings, each of them the size of the chapel at Carrs Lane. 

Says Imagination, “I will marshal the pain-ridden, bruised crowd in procession, and they shall pass my window and door, one a minute, one a minute, one a minute! How long will it take the procession to pass? Twenty-one days!” But what of the units of the dark and tearful procession? Imagination gets to work again. Have you a child down? They are like him. Have you a brother falling, or a sister faint and spent? They are like them. Have you known a mother torn and agonised with pain, or a father crushed and broken in his prime? They are like him…This is how refined imagination works, and, while she works, her sister, sympathy, awakes and weeps!  

In some ways, it’s embarrassingly obvious. But how many of us are oblivious or aloof to others’ pain? We grow our sympathy by spending time with our sympathetic High Priest, who is also our friend and our Lord. And then we get intentional about imagining what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

It really is that simple.

The more we do it, the more sympathy we have. The easier it will be to weep with those who weep about things we’ve never even thought, much less, cried about.

And, God knows, at one time or another we’ve all needed sympathy.

*        *       *        *        *    

Paul told the Corinthian church that the Father of mercies and God of all comfort comforts us so that we can comfort others in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Jowett wrote“God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” 

That’s staggering. God comforts us, sympathizes with us, so that we can comfort others. Timothy Keller wrote, “Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into the sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.”

When we abide in him, and train our imaginations to really ponder the pain of others, then we get beyond ourselves and sympathize with others. We allow the gospel to shape us.

And we look a little more like Jesus.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

Isaiah 53:4a