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The Shortcomings of Sympathy

The Shortcomings of Sympathy

Hello Church Family,

I hope you’ve been able to rest in God’s grace this week. I’ve been praying for you.

Occasionally, I will pick up an article or listen to a podcast by Dr. Brene Brown, a trending speaker and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Dr. Brown doesn’t claim to be a Christian, as far as I know, and she can sometimes communicate in a pretty crass manner, but she often displays remarkable insight into what it means to live together as broken human beings.

One of Dr. Brown’s most popular areas of exploration is into the difference between empathy and sympathy. “Empathy,” she contends, “fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” An empathetic person is able to enter into our struggle because he or she has experienced a similar affliction. This person is able to say: “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there … and you’re not alone.” This meets a need at our most basic human level: the need for someone else to understand and identify with us. A purely sympathetic person can only say: “Wow, what you’re going through seems really bad.”

Unfortunately, words of sympathy often begin with, “It could be worse” or, “You should. …” “It could be worse … you could be dying of cancer.” “You should really stop dwelling on the negative and focus on the positive.” I’m embarrassed to say that I have begun plenty of words of “comfort” with these assurances. Yet, it’s easy to see how such statements could only increase the distance between us.

This month we celebrate the Advent of Jesus Christ, the arrival of the promised Servant-King. In so many ways it is truly a wonderful time of the year. One of the greatest truths of the Advent Season is that since Jesus came to the earth, and suffered in every way imaginable, we have a Savior who can empathize with us.

It’s easy sometimes to conclude that no one can truly relate to what we’re going through. No one else has faced a disease this aggressive. No one else has been tempted with this sort of intensity. No one else has kids that are this much of a challenge. No one else has been this exhausted. But the Bible tells us that Jesus was tempted “in every way that we are, yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Equally encouraging is this statement from the writer of Hebrews:

“Therefore [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. … For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:14-18, italics mine)

To say that He “had to be made like his brothers in every respect” means that the eternal Son became fully human. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh. While never ceasing to be God, He voluntarily set aside His divine prerogatives and determined not to manifest His divine attributes unless directed by the Father. In other words, Jesus subjected Himself to all the limitations that we know.

New Testament scholar, Stanley Grenz, says it this way: “He was not Superman, an alien housed within a human body but inherently capable of superhuman feats. On the contrary, as the church has confessed throughout the ages, Jesus was fully human. … He was spared no difficulty in living in this fallen world.”

Jesus became tired. He got hungry. He suffered from loneliness and grief. He became physically weak. He got sick. Jesus experienced rejection at the highest level. He lost loved ones to disease. He endured temptation of every kind. He even knew what it was like to anticipate death.

What this means is: in Jesus we have a Savior who truly knows what we’re going through. We might say: He was born to empathize with us.

Whatever you’re going through, whether it’s feelings of uncertainty about the future, the stress of living in a broken body, tension in your relationships, physical and emotional exhaustion, or even the hurt over being betrayed, Jesus knows what it’s like. He’s been there. Someone understands you and what you’re dealing with. Jesus is with you. And He’s not just with you, He is able to help.

In Jesus we have someone who doesn’t say to us, “It could be worse, you could be lying in a ditch on a deserted roadside.” Instead, we have someone who whispers to us, “Take heart, my child, I am with you. I know what you’re going through, and I will help you. I will comfort you and give you everything you need to flourish.”

Where sympathy falls short, the empathy of our Savior provides hope and healing.

With joy in His arrival,

Pastor John