Sympathy: The Healing Virtue

Dr. Brian Allison

At present (May, 1995), the ebola virus is wreaking carnage and devastation in Zaire, Africa. I was speaking to a young lady yesterday from South Africa who wants to return to Africa to minister particularly to the children. I asked her why she would like to return to Africa and minister to these children; her response was, "I feel with them." Her motivation for returning to Africa is simply that of sympathy. Human sympathy is the powerful answer to human suffering. Human sympathy is perhaps one of the most effective ministries to hurting people. The story of Job is helpful at this point. His family was taken away from him; his possessions were taken away from him; his health was taken away from him. Subsequently, his three friends made an appointment to meet together, with the specific design of sympathizing and comforting him. We read, " And when they lifted up their eyes at a distance, and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe, and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great" (Jb. 2:12,13). Sympathy may be the only thing that one can 'bring to the table' and offer the sufferer in his or her time of pain. It often is the most beneficial and needful thing as well.

The nature of sympathy

The Scriptures teach, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rm. 12:15). The theme of the passage in which this particular verse is found is that of Christian love. This section provides the various aspects and demonstrations of Christian love. This section presents the practical outworking of love. Accordingly, the exhortation to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" is simply one demonstrable expression of Christian love. Love demands of us that we enter into, and identify ourselves with, the experiences of other human beings, and feel with them; or simply, love demands that we sympathize with our fellowperson, in general, and our Christian brothers and sisters, in particular, when they are in the midst of personal suffering. Generally speaking, the term sympathy means 'the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.' Specifically speaking, the term means 'the act or capacity of sharing in the suffering or grief of another.' Though the stated text concerns the general meaning of the term, our emphasis here will be on the specific meaning – "weep with those who weep."

'Sympathy' is different than 'compassion,' though these two words belong to the same word family. Compassion means 'to feel for;' sympathy means 'to feel with.' For instance, you may see an orphan and may 'feel for' him, being moved to help or relieve his privation. On the other hand, you may discover that a friend has lost a loved one and thus you may 'feel with' him, identifying with his experience of loss. Perhaps the clearest, most forceful picture of sympathy is the experience of our Lord Jesus Christ at the time of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus beheld Mary and the commiserating Jews weeping, He "was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled" (Jn. 11:33). Simply put, our compassionate Lord was sympathizing. Thus, the account continues, "Jesus wept" (Jn. 11:35). Our Lord indeed wept with those who wept.

Reasons for sympathizing

Now why are we to sympathize with others, particularly with our Christian brothers and our sisters? First, sympathizing with our Christian brother or sister underscores, demonstrates, and solidifies the unity and union that ought to characterize the Church. Sympathizing highlights the spiritual reality that Christian believers are one body, by fulfilling the law of Christ in the bearing of one another's burdens. In responding with sympathy to our spiritual brothers or sisters who are in pain, we become emotionally one with them. We are subsequently moved to support and encourage them. Sympathy is an emotional tie. We should reflect on this simple truth, lest its profundity elude us. Sympathy is part of the essential core of significant relationship and real fellowship. Our lives really blend together, and our lives really become 'feelingly' one, with the occurrence of an emotional connection; and the feelings of sympathy powerfully provide for such an emotional connection. Sympathizing significantly contributes to, and greatly determines, the quality of a relationship, as well as the depth of a fellowship. For instance, 12 years ago, when I was a guidance counselor in a Christian high school, a grade nine student came to my office. She looked dejected and depressed; she was suicidal. She began to share her pain of rejection with me. I tried to identify with her pain and show sympathy. As a result, she found both a spiritual and an emotional connection in our relationship. Fortunately, over time she became strengthened and empowered. Subsequently, she has continued to value our relationship. Even to this day, she (now a wife and mother) writes to me and lets me know how she is doing. She has always remained in touch with me, partially, because an emotional connection was established in the context of sympathy. So sympathizing helps characterize the essence of real fellowship and significant relationship.

Second, as already alluded to, sympathizing with our Christian brother or sister constitutes an effectual, restorative ministry. Sympathizing shows that one really cares for a 'bleeding' brother or sister, and is prepared to reach out to him or her. That received message of care and support, in turn, strengthens and empowers. When I resigned from my first pastorate because of extenuating circumstances, I wandered spiritually in the wilderness for a number of weeks. I felt lost, having turned my back on the ministry. I remember meeting a former friend of mine. I began to share my burden with him, and he responded by emotionally identifying with me. He supported me; and, partially, because of his sympathy, I returned to the ministry. Sympathy is a crucial ministry to those who are hurting. I believe that sympathizing should be the immediate and appropriate response to the suffering and brokenness of people. Sympathy is the healing virtue. When people know that you really feel with them in their pain, they feel empowered. They realize that they are not alone; they realize that they are supported. Consequently, their load is made lighter. Conversely, when people know that you really don't feel with them in their pain, they feel enervated. The sense of aloneness exacerbates the situation. Consequently, their load may become unbearable. Pastor Dolman has told the story about the time when he was working in his study. The door creaked open, and suddenly he heard a loud scream and crying. He quickly looked up and saw his little daughter with her hand caught in the door. He immediately jumped up, calling for her mother, saying, "Come and look after your daughter!" Mrs. Dolman came rushing into the room, and bending down she said, "Oh dear, that is a dreadful thing. Does it hurt, dear?" To which the little girl dejectedly responded, "Oh, it hurts; but it hurts even more that daddy didn't say, 'Oh dear'." The power of sympathy! It is the healing virtue. It is the appropriate human response to human suffering.

The need for sympathy

Though we may not be able to actually alleviate a person's pain, we can provide strength and support to actually ease the person's pain. The experience of sympathy may allow one to endure and survive his time of grief or misfortune. Unfortunately, often we do not sympathize with our hurting brothers or sisters. We may recognize that someone is in pain; we may acknowledge that someone is in pain; we may even speak pleasant words to someone who is in pain, but often we really do not sympathize with one who is in pain. It is said of our merciful God that "in all their affliction He was afflicted" (Is. 63:9a)." As the children of God, our disposition should be similar. We should provide the emotional support and identification for hurting believers, rather than appearing callous, indifferent, and cold. We live in an age of desensitivity. We frequently hear of killings, of murders, of wars, of human tragedies; and as a result, we have become desensitized. We may see the carnage of human bodies strewn over the ground on a newscast, and we remain unmoved. Many are not personally disturbed or upset. We have become so conditioned to human suffering that we are no longer troubled by its inhumanity and irrationality. The human suffering that is reported to us simply becomes another news story. John Muir (1838-1914), the Scottish-born American naturalist said, "Most people [live] on the world, not in it – [they] have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them – undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate." What a poignant, graphic image – 'marbles of polished stone.' How very true. We can be so unfeeling, even though people are bleeding to death – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – all around us. We just don't seem to care. We nonchalantly say, "Let's see what is on another television channel."

Learning to sympathize

How can we become sympathizers? How can we fulfil the Biblical directive to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep?" An account in the life of D. L. Moody (1837-1899) provides us with some help in this connection. Moody confessed that at one time, when he was pastoring in the city of Chicago, that he had become somewhat unsympathetic to the various suffering people in his congregation. He had seen so much human suffering that he had become quite clinical and cold about it. Even the funeral of children eventually did not affect him. Now here is how he was able to feel sympathy, having become desensitized to the pain of people. On one occasion, one of his young Sunday School scholars had drowned. The mother of the little girl called for him, and Moody immediately responded, taking his four year old daughter with him. In going to the home, he found a poor family. The father, a drunkard, sat in one corner. When they were outside again, his daughter asked, "Pa, if we were poor and I had to go down to the river to pick up sticks, and I had drowned, and you were too poor to bury me, would you feel sorry?" Moody's heart was pulled. His daughter further asked, looking up at him with a facial expression that he had never seen before, "Pa, do you feel bad for that mother?" Moody's heart was wrenched. He grabbed his daughter, and pulling her to his chest, he kissed her. At that point, he felt the springs of sympathy arise in his heart. Moody said that what he learned about how to acquire sympathy is that "you must consider how you would feel in their place." The helpful point is this: through empathy, one can acquire sympathy. When we actually put ourselves in the place of another, we will be able to see the world from his or her perspective; then we will be more likely to sympathize. When we can mentally identify with one's situation, we may then emotionally identify with one's experience. You will 'feel with' someone when you can 'think as' someone. Either we must identify with someone through an actual experience, or we must identify with someone through a vicarious experience – that is, putting ourselves in his or her place.

The fruit of sympathy

Again, what is the great fruit of sympathy? Healing. Through showing sympathy, we encourage and empower our Christian brothers and sisters. When they see our sincere caring, they are encouraged to press on. They recognize that they are not alone, but that someone else walks with them. Again, we may not be able to take away the pain, but it is very comforting to know that someone else is near to share in the pain, and thus ease the load. A few days ago I saw an interview with the mother of the late Barbara Frum. Barbara Frum was a broadcast host for the C.B.C. She had died of cancer. Her mother said that when her daughter died, an avalanche of sympathies poured in. She was simply overwhelmed with how many people thought so well of her daughter. That human response to human suffering was an encouragement and empowerment to her. The power of the healing virtue of sympathy! May God indeed give us grace to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep."