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Optics Matter. So Smile.

Smiling car driver
Taking Elizabeth’s Smile & Drive Challenge

Optics matter. 

As much as it hurts a no-pretense, country girl like me to admit it, they do. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, optics means how a thing looks to an outsider. The word is often applied in the worlds of politics and business. A politician playing golf as his home state is declared a disaster or a Starbucks barista holding a Dunkin’ mug, as examples, would create bad optics.

Image, if not everything, means a lot. It can make or break a cause. And I don’t just mean on Wall Street or in Washington.

I mean for you Christian, driving along in your automobile. 

Elizabeth’s “Smile & Drive Challenge”

My friend Elizabeth has got a thing for joy. And for smiling while she drives. I’ve seen it. We’ve passed in Burlington’s streets and parking lots and it’s striking. 

Elizabeth has a gorgeous smile to begin with, then add to it that she sports it while weaving her black, 12-person van around the one-ways in our town and she stands out.

Let me tell you how the challenge came about. Our ladies’ group was discussing what more than conquerors and “not somehow, but victoriously” mean and how sometimes it’s all we can do to crack a smile. 

Which is when Lizz looked at us with a twinkle in her eye and began:

So,  I’ve been trying to smile while I drive. Even when I stop for a red light or a train.  

Then she threw down the gauntlet:

I challenge you. Smile while you drive. 

I don’t know if that sounds easy to you. But I ca. assure you, it does not feel natural. Smiling while I drive feels odd. 

So why does Elizabeth do this? 

Optics Matter

Elizabeth cares about optics. That’s why. 

Or, to be precise, Elizabeth wants to attract unbelievers to Jesus. And there’s nothing like a radiant smile to attract people. 

As much as I’d like to believe that it’s virtuous to be authentic and let it all hang out so no one can charge me with hypocrisy, it’s not. If we want to influence others for Christ, we must dress up

Because, as Steven Cole has said, Our job as believers is to give good press to our good God, not by spinning or bending the truth, but by conveying by our demeanor and words how excellent He truly is.

Or again, reflecting on Psalm 67:1, John Piper asks, How can you say to the nations, “Be glad in God!” if you are not glad in God?

Optics and gladness and good press for a good God. That’s why I took Elizabeth’s challenge. 

Smile: Make God Look Good

I love Alexander MacLaren’s description of adorning the gospel, of making God look good. Even though he wrote it 150 years ago, it sounds like he was describing optics. 

[M]en do quite rightly and legitimately, judge of systems by their followers...It is just as fair, when a creed comes before our notice which assumes to influence men’s conduct, to say: ‘Well, I should like to see it working…”

So when we Christians stand up and say, ‘We have a faith which is able to deaden men’s minds to the world; which is able to make them unselfish; that is able to lift them up above cares and sorrows; which is able to take men and transform their whole nature, and put new desires and hopes and joys into them’; it is quite fair for the world to say:

‘Have you? Does it? Does it do so with you? Can you produce your lives as working models of Christianity? 

So, dear friends, this possibility does lie before all Christians, that they may by their lives conciliate prejudices, prepare people to listen… to the message of God’s love, win over men…and make them say: ‘Well, after all, there is something in that Christianity.

The Smile & Drive Challenge is a cheap way to improve optics. Smiling while wait for in the pick-up line after practice now this is a “working model of Christianity.” 

Smile: Make Yourself Feel Good

The goal of the Smile & Drive Challenge is to make God look good. People may see you smiling as you drive and put 2 and 2 together and think, “She’s a Christian and she’s smiling. Her faith must make her happy.” Smiling Christians are more likely to draw others to Christ than grumpy Christians. 

But God is so good that he made us with creature features to promote our own health. Smiling is one of those. Mother Teresa said, We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do. 

Intentional smiling can improve not only your mood but your body’s stress response. Think of smiling as free therapy. Apart from the stress release, smiling has been found to lower blood pressure and improve immune function. Truly, a joyful heart is good medicine (Prov. 17:22). 

Joy will bring out our smiles, but smiling can also bring out joy. Even if you’re not feeling the joy, do what joy to would do. It might just be enough to ignite the spark of joy so that you feel it too. (Read this for 10 more reasons to smile.)

Good Press Or Bad Press? 

But the biggest reason to smile is because our God is good. Psalm 100 is a call to make a joyful noise and give thanks and be glad and the last verse tells why. It’s a good one to memorize if your joy well is dry:

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I’ve asked myself and I ask you: Does your life give God good press or bad press? If you’re doubting His goodness and grumbling about your trials, it’s not good. Why would onlookers be interested in your God?

But if those around you notice your joy and glad submission to God, they just might be drawn to the Lord who whose joy is your strength; who is so good that you smile while you drive. 

That can be hard.

Smiling Through Spilled Gazpacho

God wants to keep me honest so he has me write. You see, when I started writing this post earlier this week, life was peachy. Literally peachy. My friend Jen had just brought me a box of those juicy Georgia peaches and, my, were they sweet.

But two days later a few got bruised, a son got grumpy and a row with Jim ensued. The rats in the cellar all broke loose. To top it off, en route to dinner group, the precious peach gazpacho spilled. 

My smile was AWOL until two miles west of the gazpacho spill. That’s where the Spirit called to mind the words in this half-finished post. And you know: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. 

So quick as a ripe Georgia peach disappears, my frown turned upside down.

When Your Smile Is Worth Double

Peach  gazpacho cleans up in a jiffy, but some of you face troubles that won’t go away. But here’s the good news: your smile is worth more. 

Because your smile is a sacrifice of praise. Your praise is so precious because it comes from a faith tested by fire. Anyone can smile and sing God’s praise when he’s living like he wrote it, but lips that praise God’s name in the hard times command attention.

I recently read a story about unconverted John Wesley. A conversation with the the luggage handler at his college impressed Wesley deeply. Somehow Wesley had learned that the porter had only one coat and had not enough money for that day’s food. But the man overflowed with praise. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon! What else do you thank Him for?”

“I thank Him, answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100.)

That poor man gave his good God good press and God used it to bring John Wesley to saving faith. Steven Cole concludes, God is good, so we who belong to Him should give Him good press by being people of exuberant joy, glad submission, and thankful praise. 

In other words, optics matter. 

Will You Take the “Smile & Drive Challenge”

If you’re still on the fence about taking Elizabeth’s challenge, consider this: God’s reputation and honor are at stake.

“If we do not rejoice — if God is not our treasure and our delight and our satisfaction, John Piper says, then he his dishonored. His glory is belittled. His reputation is tarnished. Therefore, God commands our joy both for our good and for his glory.” Optics matter.

I know that smiling and joy are not the same. But I also know- I mean from experience know- that I cannot smile without feeling honest to goodness joy in the Lord.

So, if you happen to see me driving around town and I’m not smiling, please honk. 

And smile.

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Where do the saints get their joy from? If we did not know some saints, we would say– “Oh, he, or she, has nothing to bear.” Lift the veil. The fact that the peace and the joy of God are there is proof that the burden is there too. The burden God places squeezes the grapes out and out comes the wine; most of us see the wine only..If you have the whine in you, kick it out ruthlessly. It is a positive crime to be weak in God’s strength.

-Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, “Inspired Invincibility

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

-Jesus to his disciples, in John 15:11

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When Your Pain Is Real And Pressing

Some weeks we feel it more. Some days strung in a row, it’s heavy and it clings. Our pain feels real and pressing.

Some springs we just feel the fall more. Paul wrote: The whole creation groans

Last week, when April showers were snowstorms that dampened weddings and canceled ballgames and delayed burials and postponed buttercup plantings, I think I heard it groan.

Grandpa On Monday

It was Grandpa’s burial that was delayed last Monday.

Not that it that day so much when I heard the moan.  Because we’d watched him fade and Grandpa was blessed to make 98.

Two days before his last, we stopped to say our thank-you’s and good-bye. Grandpa’s head was a little bloodied and bruised from a nasty night-time tumble.

All creation groans.

Grandpa was thirsty. I swabbed three times with water- no hyssop, no wine. Then I leaned in to the “good” ear that could maybe hear a.  We love you Grandpa. He winced and softly moaned.

All creation groans. 

Still- or so?- we sang- Youtube and I- into that one good ear. 

There’ll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear, No more sickness, not pain, no more parting over there. And forever I will be with the One who died for me.

What a day, glorious day that will be! What a day that will be when my Jesus I shall see,

And on and on we sang for 4 or 5 more songs.  Until the troops got hungry and restless. For all creation groans. 

His funeral was Monday. I heard it then.

Groaning the Rest of the Week

But, got louder- it felt heavier- as the week wore on.

On Tuesday when a tearful friend detailed a long-standing heart-wrenching marriage ache. And Wednesday, I heard it when another friend described her pain as she wrote the hardest word on her son’s tax return- “deceased.” He would have been 18.

All creation groans. 

Thursday, I felt it when a newly widowed friend explained how a court and a judge are needed to unravel wrongs from before her husband died. And I heard it Friday when another friend requested more prayer for a heated custody battle her son is in.

All creation groans. 

Then, Saturday, I felt it in myself. In a struggle in my mind that comes and goes but may not end, I think, till I die, (And that’s okay- suffering is fitting.) And Sunday, Jim and I heard it when our friend’s sick lungs kept him in bed, even on the sunny day when spring came.

The whole creation groans. But He knows.

God knows what He’s about. 

When God Wants to Drill a Man

I’d heard this (anonymous) poem before. But when I woke up Friday last week – that string-of-days week – to hear Joni read it, it meant more.

When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;

When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him

Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!

How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And which every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out-
God knows what He’s about.

Hammers and hurts, converts. Bends, but never breaks, when his good He undertakes. For sure: amazed, by God’s methods and ways.

Which may include pain.

When Your Pain is Real and Pressing

But this blog is called Joyfully Pressing On and Philippians 3:8-14 is my theme.

I know this suffering, this all creation groaning, is not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. I believe this. The pain and pressing now is not worth comparing to the glory then.

But more.

Our suffering now isn’t merely to be endured. In a sense, it’s to be a source of joy. Yes, joy! Because our groans, our faithful groans, our I-believed-and-so-I-spoke groans, are actually achieving glory.

Our real and pressing pains are some of the God’s means to prepare and produce and achieve this splendid glory. To try his splendor out.

When you see this, says Joni Eareckson Tada, you’re a Rumpelstiltskin weaving straw into gold; like a divine spinning wheel, your affliction works a far exceeding and eternal weight of glory (When God Weeps, p. 210)

Glory will be so glorious not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.

Eternal Weight Of Glory

Let’s don’t doubt it, friends: Our suffering is productive. If we’re in Christ, it’s working for us, even as we groan. 

While we waste away, God is preparing an eternal weight of glory– from our real and pressing pain.

Earlier this snowy, groany month of April, a friend gave me a new Wendell Kimbrough CD. I listened to track nine over and over last week. And if you’ve had your own string of days- if you’ve felt the fall this spring- you might enjoy a listen too.

So I’ll leave you with the lyrics to track number nine- Eternal Weight of Glory- since it’s high time I say good-bye.

Because the snow finally melted and I’ve got some buttercup bulbs to plant.

Eternal Weight of Glory 
Now the days and hours and moments
Of our suff’ring seem so long;
And the toilsome wait and wond’ring
Threaten silence to our song.
Now our pain is real and pressing
Where our faith is thin and weak,
But our hope is set on Jesus;
And we cling to him, our strength.

Oh eternal weight of glory!
Oh inheritance divine!
We will see our Lord redeeming
Every past and future time.
All our pains will be transfigured,
Like the scars of Christ our Lord.
We will see the weight of glory,
And our broken years restored.

For behold! I tell a myst’ry:
At the trumpet sound we’ll wake

“Death is swallowed up in vict’ry!”
When we meet our King of Grace
Every year we thought was wasted
Every night we cried “How long?”
All will be a passing moment
In our Savior’s vict’ry song

We will see our wounded Savior.
We’ll behold him face to face;
And we’ll hear our anguished stories
Sung as vict’ry songs of grace.

Words and Music: © 2015 Wendell Kimbrough.

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Still Struggling? (And why that might just be a very good thing.)

Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. –C.S. Lewis

Something MUST be wrong, she said. I still struggle with the same sins that I did ten years ago. I struggle to forgive the same old things and sometimes I still get so mad at the kids. And just when I think I’ve got my discontentment nipped, a new envy blossom buds. 

No matter how hard I try and how much I pray and try to rely on the Spirit, I just can’t seem to master these things. Something must be wrong. This stuff should be overcome by now. 
Has a friend ever confided that sort of frustration to you? Or maybe you are that discouraged friend? And you- or your friend- have wondered, If Christ made me new and lives in my heart wouldn’t these battles be over? Shouldn’t the struggle be done? 

I should be over this.  

Not so fast, Sherlock. Who says your struggles should be done? 

Chesterton knew: A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. Paul, knew too, that it’s only when the Spirit brings life that the struggle comes: The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other to prevent you from doing what you would” (Galatians 5:16).

The point? Real Christians experience real struggle. Even when we’re converted, new creations, there is such a thing as indwelling sin. John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, also knew the reality of clingy, indwelling sin.

It is inseparable from us, as the shadow from our bodies when the sun shines upon us. The holiness of a sinner does not consist in a deliverance from it, but in being sensible of it, striving against it, and being humbled under it, and taking occasion from thence to admire our Savior, and rejoice in him as our complete righteousness and sanctification.

So don’t let a flawed description of the Christian life bring you down. A Christian isn’t someone who doesn’t experience bad desires. No- a Christian is a person who struggles with those bad desires by the Holy Spirit’s power.


Or, as only John Piper could put it,  

Conflict in your soul is not all bad. Even though we long for the day when our flesh will be utterly defunct and only pure and loving desires will fill our hearts, yet there is something worse than the war within between flesh and Spirit; namely, no war within because the flesh controls the citadel and all the outposts. Praise God for the war within! Serenity in sin is death. The Spirit has landed to do battle with the flesh. So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you are at war with them!

The Spirit has landed. But the road to victory is not easy.

The Long Hard Road

For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. Romans 7:15

The author of Hebrews wrote that we who have believed enter that rest, and verses later urges, Let us therefore strive to enter that rest. The same Paul who wrote that blessed verse we love to quote, If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone. Behold! All things are new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) also wrote, I discipline (or pommel) my body and keep it under control (1 Corinthians 9:27).

That’s boxing-ring, fight talk, not victory-lap chat.

Even when Jesus called the weary and heavy-ladened to come to him for rest, he calls them to take up his yoke and burden. These are easy and light, because they are borne with Christ, I think. But still, Christ calls them yoke and burden (Matthew 11:28-30).

Another verse we sheep love to quote, I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly, is followed by the Good Shepherd’s reference to laying down his life. And that was laced with bloody-tears and struggle (Luke 22:42-44).

In “The Cross of Least Resistance,” (Touchstone, March/April 2017) Robin Phillips asks,

If Christ himself struggles to be obedient to his Father’s will (Matt. 26:36-44), why should we as his followers expect anything less? On the contrary, if we want to be Christ’s disciples and experience abundant life, there is only one way: we must embrace the struggle, take up our cross, and follow him.

In other words, if we’ve been in the “struggle-is-bad” crowd, we’ve got to get out.  We’ve got to see that perseverance in the good fight with the steadfastness of Christ is cause to rejoice. Rather than seeing struggle as bad, we’ve got to see struggle against sin as evidence of spiritual life.


Maybe, we even praise God for the war within!

Let Go And Let God?

Let go and let God is not a Bible verse. I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and Take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and We take every thought captive to obey Christ, and If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live- those are.

Oh, sure- to be fair, we are definitely called to come to Christ, and lie down in green pastures and rest. And to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that entangles. But why? So that we may run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Christ. But perseverance and running sound a lot more like struggle than let go and let God and give up the fight.

But, okay. In a way we are called to let go. To let go of our selfish desires, to put off and put away all manner of sin (Ephesians 4:22-32, Colossians 3:8-14). We are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Hebrews says, there is a Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:10). But the following verse says, Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.   

And if by let God, we mean, Keep in step with the Spirit and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, which incidentally is followed by,  and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:12-14)- well then, Amen!- let God. Let God control you. Or like Paul wrote, the love of Christ controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).

All the warfare and athletic metaphors in the New Testament and Paul’s own example of fighting the good fight and finishing the race point to this one thing: the Christian life, the normal Christian life necessarily involves struggle. Until the mortal is swallowed up by life, there will at least some level of Spirit-flesh fight.

No, whatever letting go means, biblically it does not mean struggle-free. To the Philippians, Paul wrote, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is Christ who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (2:12-13). He put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:10, But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 

Work is involved. Struggling and wrestling are not abnormal. Far from it. They are the precise means God uses to grow strong saints. And to magnify his sufficient, glorious grace.

Why Struggle Is Good

1. Growth.

The language of the New Testament describes the Christian life as a life of growth and increasing spiritual strength. We’re born again as infants. But Scripture says we grow. We’re called children and young men or older women, even fathers in faith. Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, Peter wrote.

It’s in our struggle we grow and build our stamina. That’s why I used an Asian style math with the boys. I wanted to see them persist, to struggle a bit, in their work. They did the kind of problems that take 10 minutes of trial and error. Of fight. These same behaviors that American regard as failing, the Japanese think of as learning.

Persevering through setbacks sets us up for future success and spiritual strength.

2. Grace.

Paul pleaded three times for his thorn in the flesh, his harassing messenger of Satan to be removed. You know what God said: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Paul got it. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

Do we get it? Or do we think being in Christ on this earth means that we get to shed all our weakness and let go of our struggle? That comfortable here is our right? That grace comes better when there’s no indwelling sin left to fight?

Do we know that groaning and grit lead to spiritual growth? That struggle and stress and strain are God-ordained means to rely on his grace? 

The Burden That’s Lifted When You Don’t Let Go

Can we be clear that spiritual struggle is not out of place for the Christian? That, quite possibly, if by Spirit, we’re struggling against sin we’re right where God wants us to be, on the high road to holiness where God’s grace strengthens us weak, struggling saints?

Realizing then, that spiritual struggle and facing ongoing temptation are God’s normal means to growing us up into Jesus and getting us more dependent on Christ– actually lifts the burden.
We don’t see struggle as sign that something is wrong with us anymore, but as confirmation that something is quite right. When we see the struggle as part of the growth and grace process we’re able to reframe our daily temptations and inner battles as opportunities to grow spiritually. We stop struggling against struggle.We see that rather than being a sign of failure and futility, our struggles might very well be evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. After all, if God’s grace was not at work, strengthening us, we would surely have given up.

So you’re struggling. That just might just be a good thing. Because it’s not only the force of wind we feel when we stand against. We feel the power of God’s sufficient grace, too.

Looking To Christ’s Sufficient Grace

In Newton On The Christian LifeTony Reinke presents a beautiful and compelling portrait of a man who reveled in God’s sovereign, sufficient and boundless grace. To all of us who would despond in our ongoing sin struggles Newton (via Reinke) writes:

To not feel the sting of sin is a form of sickness, a deadness, a leprosy of the soul. But to feel the sting of sin is a mark of health, a sign of life, and a necessary experience if we are to appreciate the sin-conquering work of Christ (p. 123).

Our struggle, then, against sin is good insomuch as it makes us,

[W]onder how such a weak sinner’s faith has been sustained. Indwelling sin should cause us to marvel when we awake each morning with a remaining spark of hope and faith in Jesus. The faith-sustaining grace proves the power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love of God toward us. How can it not? Faith survives in the most unlikely of places: within us! (p. 115)

Like a spark burning in the water. That’s how Newton sized up Christ’s power in maintaining us-his own work- in the midst of such opposition, such struggle. Opposition which includes our pesky, clinging indwelling sin.

While Newton is most famous for the phrase amazing grace, he much preferred the phrase sufficient grace (p. 42). In fact, he actually wrote another song about grace titled, aptly, “My Grace Is Sufficient For Thee.” 

Reinke describes this song as a “micro-look into how grace gets applied to warfare in the Christian life.” I can’t think of a better way to close.

Oppressed with unbelief and sin,

Fightings without, and fears within;

While earth and hell, with force combined,

Assault and terrify my mind:

What strength have I against such foes,

Such hosts and legions to oppose?

Alas! I tremble, faint, and fall;

Lord, save me, or I give up all.

Thus sorely pressed, I sought the Lord,

To give me some sweet cheering word;

Again I sought, and yet again;

I waited long, but not in vain.

Oh! ’twas a cheering word indeed!

Exactly suited to my need;

“Sufficient for thee is my grace,

Thy weakness my great power displays.”

Now I despond and mourn no more,

I welcome all I feared before;

Though weak, I’m strong; though troubled, blessed;

For Christ’s own power shall on me rest.

My grace would soon exhausted be,

But his is boundless as the sea;

Then let me boast, with holy Paul,

That I am nothing, Christ is all.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

1 Corinthians 12:9

I found each of these resources to be rich sources for biblical encouragement on spiritual struggle:

1. Robin Phillip’s March/April 2017 Touchstone article, The Cross of Least Resistance

2. Tony Reinke’s biography of John Newton, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ ch. 5,12

3. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ sermon, addressing “Let Go and Let God,” Who Does The Fighting?

4. Pastor John Piper’s sermon, How To Kill Sin- Part 2

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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