Jesus Showed Sympathy
How much more tragic could it be? A 17-year-old girl, struggling with what most 17-year-old girls struggle with, except with so much more, took her own life. Who could imagine the parents’ devastation?
Their pastor came over to the house. He sat down in the living room next to them and for a long time said nothing. He just immersed himself in their grief. Then he, the pastor, started sobbing. He sobbed until his tears ran dry. Then, without saying a word, he got up and left.
Sometime later, the father told him how much he appreciated what the pastor had done. He and his wife, at that time, didn’t need words, didn’t need promises, didn’t need counseling. All they needed, right then and there, was raw sympathy.
“I can’t tell you,” he said to the minister, “how much your sympathy meant to us.”
Sympathy means “with pathos,” and “pathos” is related to pity, tenderness, or sorrow. It means being “with” someone but in a profound way. Showing sympathy toward the sorrows of others takes the question of “mingling” with others to a whole new level.
Showing sympathy was also a crucial way that Jesus reached people.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 20.
The universe can seem like a very scary place: vast, cold, and so big we sense our own insignificance and meaninglessness amid it. This fear has become even more prevalent with the advent of modern science, whose giant telescopes have revealed a cosmos much larger and vaster than our imaginations can readily grasp. Add to that the extravagant claims of Darwinism, which in most popular versions dismisses the idea of a Creator, and people can, understandably, struggle with a sense of hopelessness amid a vast creation that seems to care nothing about us.
Of course, the Bible gives us a different view of our place in the creation.
2 Kings 13:23
Isa. 54:7, 8, 10
Contrary to the popular notion of the God of the Old Testament as stern, mean, unforgiving, and uncompassionate, especially in contrast to Jesus and how He is represented in the New Testament, these texts are just a few of many in the Old Testament that reveal God’s compassion for humanity.
God deeply cares about people (see James 5:11). This is a theme that is seen all through the Bible.
“His heart of love is touched by our sorrows and even by our utterances of them. . . . Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. . . . No calamity can befall the least of His children . . . of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest.”—Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 100.
As Jesus mingled with people during His earthly ministry, He encountered situations that revealed His sympathy and compassion for them. “He came forth, and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14, ASV).
The word sympathy also brings to mind other related words, such as empathy and pity. According to various dictionaries, compassion is pity, sympathy, empathy. Pity is sympathetic sorrow for one’s suffering. Empathy is the ability to understand or share the feelings of others.
Compassion and sympathy show that we not only understand what others are suffering but want to help alleviate and remedy the suffering.
When you hear about the sad things that have happened to people in your community, such as their house burning down or a death in the family, what is your reaction? Do you just mutter, “That’s so sad,” and then move on, which is so easy to do? Or are your sympathies aroused, moving you with compassion for them? True compassion will lead you toward comforting and actively helping friends as well as strangers in practical ways. Whether it is sending a sympathy card or showing even deeper sympathy by visiting and assisting with immediate needs, loving action is the clear result of true sympathy.
Fortunately, people and aid organizations tend to compassionately respond to big disasters. However, sometimes we may not pay as much attention to the “smaller” misfortunes and disasters that deeply affect someone.
Jesus didn’t just show sympathy but took that sympathy to the next level: compassionate action. We, of course, are called to do the same. Anyone can feel sorrow or sympathy for someone’s misfortune. The question is, What action does that sympathy lead us to perform?
Compassion comes from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with.” As we ourselves have suffered, we also can understand the sufferings of others; and, no doubt, just as we often crave compassion and sympathy in our suffering, we should be willing to do the same for others in their need, as well.
We saw in an earlier lesson the story of the good Samaritan. As He highlights the example of the Samaritan, Jesus says, “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him” (Luke 10:33, NIV). This pity, or compassion, drove the Samaritan traveler to act on behalf of the injured victim. The priest and the Levite likely asked themselves, “If I help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan might have asked himself, “If I don’t help this man, what will happen to him?” In this story the Samaritan unselfishly takes the perspective of the victim and takes action. He risks his safety and his wealth for a stranger. In other words, sometimes being a Christian involves risks and can be, potentially, very costly.
Look at the story of the prodigal son from this perspective as well (Luke 15:20–32). What does the prodigal’s father do that makes him vulnerable to criticism and family strife? The compassionate embrace, the robe of belonging, the ring of trust, the sandals of freedom, and the call for celebration reflect the selfless joy of a father who is willing to sacrifice all for the sake of his prodigal son’s restoration. Prodigal means wasteful, reckless, extravagant, and uncontrolled. This kind of behavior certainly describes the path of the son in this story. But stop for a moment and consider that, in response to the return of the prodigal, one could justly claim that the father in this story puts all dignity aside and recklessly bestows everything he has on his disheveled son. In the eyes of the older sibling, the father is wasteful, extravagant, and uncontrolled. The father becomes prodigal at the sight of his repentant son, and his heart of compassion triggers the emptying of all resources necessary to restore him.
This level of sympathy and compassion involves setting self aside, and it can make us vulnerable to whatever comes as we suffer with someone and endeavor to move him or her toward restoration. In short, true compassion and sympathy might come with a cost.
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35, NIV).
In John 11:35 Jesus demonstrated sympathy, empathy, and pity from His core. Even though He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, the grief of a family with whom He was very close affected Him physically and emotionally.
However, Jesus was weeping not only over the death of a dear friend. He was looking at a much bigger picture, that of the suffering of all humanity because of the ravages of sin. “The weight of the grief of ages was upon Him. He saw the terrible effects of the transgression of God’s law. He saw that in the history of the world, beginning with the death of Abel, the conflict between good and evil had been unceasing. Looking down the years to come, He saw the suffering and sorrow, tears and death, that were to be the lot of men. His heart was pierced with the pain of the human family of all ages and in all lands. The woes of the sinful race were heavy upon His soul, and the fountain of His tears was broken up as He longed to relieve all their distress.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 534.
Think about her words: Jesus, in ways that none of us ever could, saw the “pain of the human family in all ages and in all lands.”
We ourselves barely can stand to think about the pain of those whom we know or with whom we are close. Then add to that the pain of others that we read about in the news. And yet, we have here the Lord, who knows things in ways that we don’t, weeping over the collective grief of humanity. God alone knows the full extent of human woe and sorrow. How thankful we should be that we get only faint glimpses of that sorrow, and sometimes even that seems too much for us. Try to imagine what must have been stirring the heart of Jesus at that time.
The word comfort comes from the Latin com (together, with) plus fortis (strong). As Christ strengthens us in our suffering, we can pass this strength to others. As we have learned from our own sorrows, we can more effectively minister to others in theirs.
Churches generally have members who suffer and members who comfort. This combination can transform your church into a “safe house”—a “city of refuge” (see Numbers 35) as well as a river of healing (see Ezek. 47:1–12) that flows to the community.
Showing sympathy and comfort is an art. Here are some suggestions:
Further Thought: Read Deuteronomy 24:10–22, Jonah 3, Malachi 3:17, Matthew 15:32–38, Mark 6:34–44, Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 10:32–34. Read Ellen G. White, “Be Sympathetic to All Men,” p. 189, and “Thoughtful of Others,” p. 193, in My Life Today; “The Privilege of Prayer,” p. 100, in Steps to Christ; “This Is Pure Religion” and “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” chapters 4 and 5, in Welfare Ministry.
A few families with their small children got together during a holiday and made packages of food and toiletries to give out to the many homeless in their city. After working for a few hours, they got into their cars, went to the city center, and, in about a half hour, distributed the goods. They then went off to a museum and, afterward, out to dinner. As they were walking back to the cars, one of them said, “I’m glad we did this. But do you realize that by now most of those whom we fed are probably hungry again?”
No question, there are so many people out there who need comfort, sympathy, and help that it can seem overwhelming, almost to the point where one could think: What’s the sense of doing anything? We can barely make a dent! Numerous problems exist with that line of thinking, however. First, if everyone thought that way, no one would help anyone, and the needs, as terrible as they are, would be even worse. On the other hand, if everyone who could help others would, then the needs, as terrible as they are, wouldn’t be as bad. Second, we have never been told in the Bible that human pain, suffering, and evil would be eliminated this side of heaven. In fact, we have been told the opposite. Even Jesus, when here, didn’t end all human suffering. He did what He could. We are to do the same: bring comfort, sympathy, and help to those whom we can.