/ sympathy / Joel Hart

A Call for Sympathy

Sympathy. Sym-pathy: literally, to suffer with.

The world and the church today are full of arguments, discussions, debates. I suppose that’s nothing new, but we feel that now perhaps more than in most times.

Embedded in the arguments, discussions, debates are proposals for solutions and outcomes. Everyone has some kind of solution, it seems, particularly in areas of race and relationships.

I’m glad for this solution-oriented desire. The Western world is one of great production and output. Perhaps some of my readers would even cite the “Protestant work ethic” as in full view here. “When we see a problem, we go to work to fix it.”

But I wonder about this world or church full of arguments, discussions, debates, proposals, solutions, and outcomes. I wonder, would you say it is also a world or church full of … sympathy?

Sympathy is that entering the experience of sorrow with another that leads to a shared experience of suffering. This virtue is most exemplified in our Savior. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.” Christ entered a world of weakness to suffer with and for His people. He is Christ the sympathizer.

Hebrews 10, the only other place in Scripture to use this exact Greek word (sympatheo), applies it in a different mode. It speaks to the church who “had compassion [sympatheo] on those in prison” (Heb. 10:34).

The message of Hebrews on sympathy: A sympathizing Christ forms a sympathetic church. In Christ, we are the church that suffers with.

But there's a difficulty. Sympathy is fundamentally an inefficient virtue. And our solution-orientation naturally recoils at the inefficient.

I used to work in the finance department for a large-scale pharmaceutical manufacturer. We would analyze the step-by-step process of manufacturing our medicines, with an eye to efficiency. What would I have done if, in my analysis, I ever saw a process inserted to “pause the line every day for an hour to sympathize with the patient who will get this life-changing medicine”? Well, I suppose I would've suggested nixing that step. It’s inefficient.

And the same inefficiency will confront us as we approach relational challenges in the areas of race and relationships. Here, though, we must not pursue the manufacturing model of efficiency, but the inefficient model of sympathy.

Sympathy will take significant time. Sympathy will view relationship as primary and not as a means to an end. Sympathy might involve tears. Sympathy might not have a solution by the end of a conversation.

So why? Why pursue such this inefficient virtue of sympathy? I love this quote from J. C. Ryle. Ryle writes,

“Sympathy is far better than money, and far rarer too. Thousands can give who know not what it is to feel. Sympathy has the greatest power to draw us and to open our hearts. Proper and correct counsel often falls dead and useless on a heavy heart. Cold advice often makes us shut up, shrink, and withdraw into ourselves, when tendered in the day of trouble. But genuine sympathy in such a day will call out all our better feelings, if we have any, and obtain an influence over us when nothing else can. Give me the friend who, though poor in gold and silver, has always ready a sympathizing heart.”[1]

Ryle, a great theologian with much “proper and correct counsel” he could give, is onto something. How we need genuine sympathy to open hearts and draw out our better feelings.

How we need to suffer with that we might better discuss with. How we need to suffer with that we might better counsel with. How we need to suffer with that we might better solve with.

So often, sitting behind the email, the text, or the social media post is a plea for sympathy. A prayer request offered or a heartfelt prayer itself is often just a cry for the Lord and those around to hear in sympathy. Even the debates, full of point and counter-point, often come from hearts longing for sympathy and expressing that longing through intellectual interaction.

Of course, sympathy will not be synonymous with agreement on every issue. And more than sympathy is needed as well. We need hearts of sympathy that drive to truth and drive to action.

More than sympathy is needed, but not less. We must be the sympathetic church of Jesus Christ. Such sympathy, done in the name of Christ, will point our world to Christ the sympathizer.

So in these days of worldwide relational crises, I invite you to ask, not simply, “Who am I talking with or listening to or debating with or arguing with or reading from?” Learn to ask this as well: “Who am I sympathizing with? And how can I do this more?”

[1] J.C. Ryle, “The Ruler of the Waves” in Holiness (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001), 238-239.

Joel Hart

Joel Hart

Associate pastor at Second RPC (Indianapolis). Husband of Orlena. Father of 4 (David, Jenny, Elisha, Esther). Proclaiming the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

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